Environmentalists fear putting byproduct in
surface mines will harm water supply.
By Tammy Webber
August 23, 2002
Linda and Perry Dively moved to Sullivan County
six years ago to live out their retirement peacefully
among the hills where Linda had spent her childhood.
Now they're worried that a proposal to dump
coal ash into a nearby coal mine -- a practice gaining
popularity across the country as a way to dispose of millions
of tons of waste generated by power plants -- will contaminate
"If they put all that stuff in the ground
and contaminate our water, I don't know what we'll do,"
said Linda Dively. "We don't have city water out
The debate has been especially rancorous in
Indiana, where environmentalists drew national attention
to the issue. But after years of delays, state officials
appear ready to address some of their concerns.
Rules limiting contaminant levels in ground
water at mines were preliminarily approved last month
by the state Natural Resources Commission, said Department
of Natural Resources Director John Goss. And next week,
DNR officials will propose legislation to impose a per-ton
charge on coal ash dumped in surface mines to create a
fund to pay for long-term ground water monitoring, Goss
Currently, ground water at mines is monitored
for about eight to 10 years after a mine closes, officials
said. It is monitored for decades at coal ash landfills
and lagoons, which are regulated by the Indiana Department
of Environmental Management.
Environmentalists and residents fear coal
ash -- a mix of heavy metals and other compounds left
after coal is burned -- will taint ground water if it's
dumped into unlined coal mines. Industry officials and
regulators say the dangers are minimal because ash can
harden and form an impermeable barrier, a contention environmentalists
Brian Wright, coal policy advisor for the
Hoosier Environmental Council, said he had not seen the
proposed legislation, but "long-term monitoring is
certainly a step in the right direction."
The DNR has no plans to revive more comprehensive
rules shelved in 2000. Goss said the agency probably will
await guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, which is expected to advise states on handling
But it is unlikely that the EPA -- which ruled
two years ago that coal ash isn't hazardous -- would advocate
liners, said Andrew Wittner, who is conducting the federal
"It's a matter of chemistry and mechanical
placement," said Wittner. "In my opinion, unless
you're close to a pristine ground water supply, liners
probably don't make any sense."
Wittner is analyzing eight Indiana mine disposal
sites and next month will present his findings at a conference
in Pittsburgh. He said ash disposal can benefit mines.
For example, ash sometimes improves the quality of water
that has become acidic because of mining runoff, he said.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of coal
mine sites in this country that could benefit from being
filled," Wittner said. "They are ugly and polluting
and just an insult to all of us. Imagine horribly scarred
sites becoming useful parkland, a golf course or just
None of Indiana's 350 surface mines -- 26
of which are operating -- has been reclaimed with ash,
but ash has been used to cap coal refuse piles, said Bruce
Stevens of the DNR's reclamation division.
But environmentalists say talk of reclamation
is a smokescreen.
"They are creating a landfill,"
said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the Clean Air Task Force,
a Boston-based nonprofit group that assists local environmental
organizations. "As onsite landfills are filling up
at coal plants, mines are a great big hole in the ground
that is an economic alternative for utilities to use to
dispose of this stuff."
Thirteen mines have permits for ash disposal;
four are currently taking the fill, officials said. Most
of the 5 million to 7 million tons of coal ash produced
in Indiana each year is buried in lagoons on utility property.
In 2001, fewer than 1.1 million tons were buried in mines
and about 750,000 tons in landfills, state officials said.
But that could change as landfills and lagoons
fill up and many coal companies agree to take the ash
from utilities as part of their contracts, industry officials
"We bring in coal via truck and ship
it back with ash," said DeWayne Burke, director of
environmental affairs at Indianapolis Power and Light
Co., which has three power plants generating a total of
about 600,000 tons of ash a year. "But if liners
were required at coal mines, it essentially would probably
make that cost prohibitive."
And that could mean lost business for coal
mines, said Nathan Noland, president of the Indiana Coal
"We could lose contracts to other states
that do allow it," he said. "It's a part of
Still, industry and environmental officials
say they're anxious to see what the EPA concludes.
"We're not looking for ways to create
environmental liability down the road," Noland said.
"We're looking for their guidance as well as everyone
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