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RNRF Round Table: Planning for Coastal Inland Resilience: Keeping Toxic Substances Out of the Water and Avoiding Unwise Development

On June 13, 2019, the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation (RNRF) presented a meeting titled “Planning for Coastal Inland Resilience: Keeping Toxic Substances Out of the Water and Avoiding Unwise Development,” hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers at its Capitol Hill office in D.C. Speakers included Pete Harrison with Earthjustice and Jeff Peterson formerly with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Water and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The speakers discussed issues and challenges of planning and developing coastal communities that are at risk from increasingly frequent and devastating storms. In particular, the speakers highlighted the weaknesses exposed by Hurricane Florence, which devastated communities of the coastal Carolinas.

Pete Harrison, a staff attorney with Earthjustice and an expert on coal pollution, spoke about dangers that coal ash poses to human and environmental health. He also described the regulatory and legal challenges of mitigating those dangers.

Coal ash is the substance that is left over after coal is burned. Coal ash is typically stored in large unlined ponds called surface impoundments and in landfills. These unlined impoundments usually are located next to coal-fired power plants in flood-prone areas adjacent to waterways.

Coal ash is problematic because it contains numerous contaminants that pose environmental and health risks to wildlife and humans. When coal is burned the contents are further concentrated. These contents include heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, lead and selenium. Selenium in particular is especially toxic to aquatic life.

In the United States, 110 million tons of coal ash are generated every year and much of it is stored in giant impoundment ponds. The current tally of coal ash sites is roughly 1,400 in 47 states. Harrison noted that this estimate is likely far too low since many older coal ash sites have been forgotten and are uncounted. The majority of these sites are located in the Southeast and the Ohio River Valley and are typically located in floodplains, or flood-prone areas.

Regarding regulation of coal ash impoundments in floodplains, Harrison noted that the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) contains a provision that could apply to coal ash since it applies to all solid waste dumps (40 C.F.R. 257.3-1). Harrison explained that this RCRA provision is rarely enforced because the language is arguably vague and difficult to implement.

In 2015, the EPA finalized a rule that specifically applied to coal ash impoundments and coal ash landfills. Harrison pointed out that this 2015 regulation excludes any coal ash impoundments or landfills at inactive coal-fired power plants. Meaning, power plants not generating electricity after 2015 are not subject to the regulation. Additionally, Harrison explained that the 2015 rule can only be enforced through lawsuits, either by a citizen or a state, or by state adoption of the rule. A state may adopt the rule and codify it under state law to be enforced by the state. When asked about state regulation of coal ash, Harrison noted that the Illinois legislature had recently passed such legislation. For more information about the Illinois action click here.

Harrison illustrated the dangers of siting coal ash impoundments in floodplains by describing the events that took place at the Duke Energy Sutton Plant on the Cape Fear River, in North Carolina. In 2018, Hurricane Florence brought the most severe flooding in the river’s history. As a result, the flood waters broke through the dams surrounding the Sutton Plant impoundments and released several thousand tons of coal ash into the surrounding waterways, wetlands and a popular nearby fishing lake, Lake Sutton. Harrison noted that effective cleanup of coal ash contamination was difficult and that Duke Energy did not recover any of what was spilled during Hurricane Florence.

Duke University recently released a study on the sediment in Lake Sutton that documented the presence of coal ash solids. For more information on this Duke University study click here. Harrison believes that there has not been an adequate evaluation of the dangers of contaminants in Lake Sutton and that more investigation is warranted.

Harrison also discussed the potential beneficial uses for coal ash. Coal ash can be used as structural fill material in concrete for road construction projects including in roadbeds and interstate off ramps. Harrison pointed to several potential drawbacks to using coal ash this way. He noted that there are no requirements that the structural fill be monitored over time and that coal ash can be radioactive.

Overall, Harrison focused on the fact that the location of unlined coal ash impoundments in floodplains poses significant risks to human and environmental health. He observed that these risks will likely be exacerbated by more frequent and more severe storms that are predicted to occur as a result of changing climate patterns.

To access Pete Harrison’s PowerPoint presentation click here.

Jeff Peterson, formerly with EPA’s Office of Water and CEQ, discussed the dangers posed by ignoring the risks associated with rising sea levels and intensifying natural disasters to those living along the coasts. He began his talk with a broad overview of the challenges facing American coasts due to intensifying storms, like Hurricane Florence, and discussed the obstacles of planning and developing coastal communities in the times of sea-level rise.

One critical issue with more intense storms is the resulting storm surge. As sea levels rise, storm surges will increase and push water farther inland, flooding more expansive areas. Peterson explained that not only do more extensive areas flood due to storm surges, but recent research on these intensifying storms has found that they move slower, release more precipitation and intensify more rapidly than previous storms.

Peterson noted that the latest climate models indicate that approximately one foot of sea-level rise by the year 2100 is essentially a certainty. Estimates of three feet in sea-level rise globally are also a reasonable possibility according to Peterson. The U.S. coasts, particularly the East Coast, are more vulnerable to sea level rise than the rest of the world. It has been estimated that parts of the American coasts are likely to see sea-level rise of up to 30% greater than the global average. This vulnerability is due to a combination of geography, ocean currents and land subsidence in the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico regions.

Using the three feet of sea level rise estimate, scientific studies have identified 12,000 sq. miles of current American coastline likely to be inundated by 2100. Peterson acknowledged that this estimate covers three and a half million people and hundreds of communities that will be impacted by sea-level rise.  Additionally, the EPA anticipates losses of roughly $3 trillion due to coastal storms and sea-level rise based upon current population growth and assets.

Peterson contended that current federal policies give coastal inhabitants a misimpression regarding the risks associated with living in coastal areas. Namely, he pointed to the National Flood Insurance Program and federal appropriations for disaster relief. He argues that, in effect, the flood insurance program encourages people to live in flood prone areas because the federal government covers those financial losses. Peterson emphasized that this program is not financially sustainable and is losing over $1 billion a year. He also argued that federal disaster relief appropriations incentivize people to rebuild their damaged properties in these risky areas.

To help curb the impacts of sea-level rise, Peterson posed the following potential approaches. He proposed a long-term phase out of the flood insurance program that could take place over a 30-year period. He also suggested that Congress reevaluate its disaster relief policies and shift its emphasis to funding preemptive disaster planning rather than reactionary rebuilding post-disaster. The prospect of requiring upfront financial assurances for the decommissioning costs of properties built in coastal areas was also posited. Lastly, Peterson proposed implementation of a permit program, similar to the wetlands permitting program under the Clean Water Act, that could be instituted to determine if people should be building in these high-risk areas.

The majority of sea-level rise mitigation planning is happening at the state and local levels. Peterson advocates for significant federal government involvement in the planning process. He argues the federal government has the resources, most current science, and ability to avoid inconsistent plans among communities. Overall, Peterson emphasized that sea-level rise is not something in the distant future, it is happening now.

—Madeline Voitier, RNRF Sr. Program Mgr.

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