If the experience in Gambrills, where wells serving more than 80 homes were found to be contaminated by chemicals leaching from a coal ash dump, weren't enough to demonstrate the need to regulate these growing environmental hazards, the recent problems of the Tennessee Valley Authority have surely sealed the deal.
Last month, about 5.4 million cubic yards of coal plant sludge escaped a containment pond and spread across 300 acres near the Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee. As was the case in Maryland, drinking water supplies were poisoned with lead, arsenic, chromium and other highly toxic substances.
Admittedly, the scale of the two events is not the same. The cost to clean up the Tennessee spill is expected to reach hundreds of millions of dollars, which will dwarf the $45 million Constellation Energy Group has agreed to spend to make things right in Anne Arundel County.
Here, the money is being used not only to contain the mess but to connect homes to public water and pay for any health problems or property losses stemming from the ash dump. The Maryland Department of the Environment has chosen to adopt new standards for landfills that handle coal ash - although the fledgling program is woefully underfunded.
But the two incidents in Maryland and Tennessee are hardly isolated events. Environmental groups estimate that there are more than 1,300 coal ash disposal sites in the country. A high percentage are in facilities such as a pond or former gravel pit with no lining to prevent groundwater contamination.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has studied the problem and concluded - well, not much. The agency has found ample evidence of pollution, but when it comes to devising regulations to protect human health? So far, nothing.
It's not easily solved. Society can't just wish away the millions of tons of waste produced each year by coal-fired power plants. Some forms of coal ash can be recycled into building materials, but that's not a complete solution. Landfills and waste ponds continue to be used as industrial dumps, and the public water supply deserves to be protected now.
States like Maryland can adopt their own forms of regulation, but that's not going to solve a national problem and might even make it worse if mountains of ash end up getting shipped to states with lax environmental standards. The EPA must take this on before another dam breaks or waste dump floods and more communities are put at risk.