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Great Lakes Article:

State is acting on coal ash concerns

Environmentalists fear putting byproduct in surface mines will harm water supply.


Indy Star

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 their water.

"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 here."

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 said.

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 dispute.

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 ash.

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 agency's analysis.

"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 recreational space."

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 said.

"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 Council.

"We could lose contracts to other states that do allow it," he said. "It's a part of doing business."

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 else."

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