The Debate Over Toxic Coal Ash
The nation's coal-fired power plants are producing mountains
of ash -- more than 100 million tons annually, fueling a
debate over the environmental threat it poses.
A byproduct of burned coal, coal ash is sometimes converted
for use in products such as wallboard and cement, but
70 percent ends up in landfills, settling ponds and old
Across the country, just one year's worth of ash, placed
on a football field, would extend 11.1 miles high.
And while the energy industry has long argued that the
material is benign, with coal undergoing a national resurgence,
environmental leaders are questioning anew the extent
to which coal ash and the traces of potentially toxic
heavy metals contained in it threaten groundwater supplies,
streams, rivers, lakes and aquatic life.
''The regulation of coal ash is haphazard at best,''
said Jeffrey Stant, an Indiana consultant to the Boston-based
Clean Air Task Force -- a nonprofit advocacy group --
and a leading national critic of how power companies manage
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ''has been asleep
at the switch. The fact is, (pollution from ash) is getting
to people, and it's been causing great impacts to aquatic
systems,'' Stant said.
The issue of regulation is drawing increasing attention
as power companies propose a new generation of coal-fired
plants, urged on by the Bush administration's national
energy strategy. There are proposals for eight new coal
plants in Kentucky and two in Indiana.
With those plants, the two states are bracing for more
ash -- 6 million additional tons yearly in Kentucky alone,
or about as much as Indiana produces now.
At the same time, regulations that govern how power companies
manage combustion waste are inconsistent -- and in some
cases are all but non-existent.
Thirty families in the Northern Indiana town of Pines
understand what's at stake. An EPA emergency response
team, led by on-site coordinator Kenneth Theisen, told
them this summer that their private drinking-water wells
are ruined -- 15 years after government scientists first
suggested that a nearby ash landfill might be spreading
Theisen said he believes a toxic plume of heavy metals
from power plant ash, buried in the landfill and scattered
around town as construction fill, is the likely culprit.
EPA tests at some homes near the landfill have revealed
boron levels 13 times higher than the agency uses to decide
whether federal money can be tapped for remediation.
High doses of boron can damage the stomach, liver, kidneys
and brain, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry.
When water was tested from a ditch that flows next to
the landfill, it showed considerably higher levels of
pollutants than water tested upstream from the landfill,
''A coincidence? I don't think so,'' Theisen said.
The company that owns the landfill, Brown Inc. of Michigan
City, declined to comment for this story. Regina D. Biddings,
a spokeswoman for the NIPSCO power plant that sent ash
to the landfill, said her company was cooperating with
the EPA team.
''If the landfill is contributing to the community's
groundwater problem, the company will work with the landfill
operator, the community and state and federal agencies
to find the best resolution,'' Biddings said.
The state of Indiana earlier this year proposed placing
contaminated sections of the town on the nation's Superfund
list of most toxic places.
''I'm upset about the whole situation,'' said teacher
Phyllis DaMota, who can easily see the privately owned
landfill from her front yard and whose well water was
the first to be deemed unsafe to drink. ''Agencies that
are supposed to protect the public interest, didn't.''
Activist Jan Nona, a retired steel mill secretary, said
the lesson of her town of 790 people is that communities
need to be vigilant about where coal combustion waste
goes and how it's monitored.
''If someone thinks ash can't cause problems, I've got
a bridge to sell them in San Francisco.''
The EPA two years ago stopped short of declaring coal
ash a hazardous waste. The agency is developing disposal
standards that are scheduled to be released in early 2004.
The regulators' task won't be easy, though. Despite the
situation in Pines, there remains a contentious debate
over the threat posed by coal ash.
Industry leaders describe coal combustion waste as environmentally
benign or nearly so.
''There are some very legitimate concerns in certain
situations, but generally there should not be concern
for heavy metals (washing) out of coal ash,'' said Bill
Caylor, executive director of the Kentucky Coal Association.
''This public fear of heavy metals is blown out of proportion.''
However, the critics are moving at least some in government
to suggest that coal ash needs to be treated with more
''Even though certain regulations are on the books, are
they protective?'' asked Bob Logan, commissioner of the
Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. ''We
have always had a question. Is this material what it's
supposed to be?''
Where's the harm?
Typically, power plants put their ash in landfills or
settling ponds. Industry officials say this is designed
to keep pollution from getting into the environment.
At Cinergy's Gallagher plant in New Albany, Ind., for
example, company environmental managers point visitors
to an egret that is fishing in one of two ash ponds, and
say the ponds, which drain into the Ohio River after ash
has settled to the bottom, are coexisting well with nature.
''We're monitoring so many of these facilities, and they're
showing no impact,'' said R. James Meiers, coal combustion
waste expert for Cinergy Power Generation Services.
Some scientists back the industry's assertions.
''You get the impression we are drowning in the stuff,''
said Tom Robl, associate director of the University of
Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research, which works
closely with industry. ''No, we are not, and is the material
hazardous? Not really.''
However, environmentalists and other scientists -- typically
biologists or ecologists -- point to a variety of sites
where ash has been blamed for polluting water and in some
cases harming aquatic life.
With two other researchers, William Hopkins of the University
of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab recently completed
a survey of more than 300 reports on ash ponds and animal
toxicity for the EPA.
According to Hopkins, ash-settling ponds can be problematic
for indigenous aquatic organisms and those that use these
''By building these large contaminated wetlands, power
plants are actually attracting wildlife away from surrounding
uncontaminated sites,'' he said.
Coal combustion waste refers to several kinds of ash
and other materials, including cinders, slag and bottom
ash collected at the bottom of the boilers; fly ash collected
from flue gases; and sludge from scrubbers designed to
remove sulfur dioxide -- a cause of acid rain -- from
The environmental questions arise from other natural
elements in ash -- small amounts of heavy metals or metal-like
substances, such as boron, selenium, arsenic and manganese.
The effects of ash may be subtle or drastic, from changes
in blood chemistry to birth defects to death, Hopkins
Most of the evidence of harm to wildlife came from eight
power plant sites in such states as North Carolina, Texas
and Wisconsin, Hopkins said. None of the studied sites
were in Kentucky or Indiana.
An internal EPA document from March 2000 concluded there
were 11 cases of proven water pollution from coal waste
in the United States -- with none in Kentucky or Indiana.
Environmental groups and scientists hired by them as consultants
maintain there are dozens more cases, including several
Much of the problem involves older landfills or ponds,
where ash has been exposed to water for many years, said
Donald S. Cherry, a professor of aquatic ecotoxicology
at Virginia Tech University, who conducted research for
the Indianapolis-based Hoosier Environmental Council.
''The longer the fill sits there through time, there
will be seepage down-gradient,'' Cherry said. ''It's just
a matter of time.''
States set own rules
For 25 years, the EPA has exempted coal ash from its
''hazardous waste'' definition. This decision, which it
''tentatively'' reaffirmed two years ago, exempts the
ash from more restrictive and expensive disposal methods,
including detailed tracking of waste shipments, special
liners and long-term pollution monitoring.
The absence of federal regulations leaves each state
to set its own rules for disposal. The result is a regulatory
hodgepodge, even within states.
Consider that Kentucky -- which now says that new ash
or scrubber sludge landfills most likely will need state-of-the-art
plastic liners, water collection systems, and pollution
monitoring wells -- permits power companies to put ash
in ponds with no plastic liners and has no requirement
for groundwater monitoring near or beneath the empoundments.
Kentucky does require power plants to test the effluent
from ash ponds for toxicity to fish. Indiana does not.
Randy Bird, project consultant for Lexington-based EnviroPower,
disagreed that the liner for the company's Kentucky Mountain
Power plant in Knott County was necessary.
''We agreed to line it just to expedite our permitting
process. We didn't feel like we wanted to fight the battle.''
Kentucky also prohibits the placement of ash in strip
mine pits within four feet of the water table -- a law
that has virtually prevented the practice.
But it's a different story in Indiana, where filling
mines with ash has raised the hackles of environmentalists
and some residents since the state authorized the practice
in 1988. The ash can be dumped by itself or mixed with
dirt directly in the water table, and with no long-term
monitoring or long-term financial assurances that future
pollution problems will be corrected.
This worries Perry and Linda Dively, and their neighbor,
The three share a drinking-water well near the Black
Beauty Coal Co. mine in southwestern Indiana near Pimento,
south of Terre Haute. Black Beauty has one permit to dump
ash and is seeking a second one.
''If we don't have water, we're not going to have anything
here,'' Zink said. 'I've never heard anything good about
Black Beauty officials referred questions about mine-placement
of ash to Nat Noland, president of the Indiana Coal Council.
It's important that Indiana coal companies be allowed
to return ash to mines, because some power companies don't
have enough space for the material, Noland said.
This is something that Illinois allows, and Indiana coal
companies need an even playing field with its competitors
across the state line, he said.
In addition, the practice has proved to be safe, Noland
Indiana Department of Natural Resources officials agree
with Noland's assessment.
The relatively impermeable soil on the bottom and sides
of the strip mine pits will slow the movement of any potential
contaminants, said Bruce Stevens, director of the DNR's
Division of Reclamation.
''We look at see where people's drinking-water wells
are,'' Stevens said. ''We are going to err on the side
The well shared by Zink and the Divelys ''is a mile away
from the nearest mining,'' Stevens said. ''Their well
supply won't be impacted.''
But Roland Baker, a neighbor, said nobody is worried
about the wells going bad in just a year or two. ''It
may not take until our grandkids,'' he said. ''But by
then, nobody will be responsible.''
Construction fill concerns
Environmentalists are also worried about one increasingly
popular use of ash as construction fill.
Kentucky and Indiana allow any volume of ash to be used
this way, requiring neither liners nor groundwater monitoring.
Some cities, with rugged terrain and few buildable flat
surfaces, are grateful for what amounts to free or nearly
free construction material from power plants.
Wilder, Ky., south of Cincinnati, has used ash extensively
for several years for construction sites along the Licking
River -- even within the boundaries of the 100-year flood
''If we thought there was anything hazardous, we wouldn't
have done this,'' said Terry Vance, city administrator.
''So far it's worked out pretty good.''
Indiana lawmakers have granted these legislatively defined
''beneficial reuses'' of ash a complete exemption from
environmental laws, said Bruce Palin, deputy assistant
commissioner for the Indiana Department of Environmental
Management's Office of Land Quality.
Palin said he knows of no abuses.
In Kentucky, power plants must report once a year how
much of their ash goes to beneficial uses and identify
But there's no requirement that power plants, haulers
or building contractors file any advance notice so regulators
can make sure the dumping follows proper engineering principles
and is not merely being done to avoid the cost of using
There's also no requirement that the companies obtain
a permit that assures the construction fill will be designed
to prevent pollution.
Hancock County Judge-Executive Jack B. McCaslin discovered
how loose the beneficial-use regulations were last year,
when a constituent complained about ash dumped on eight
acres of rural land in his Western Kentucky county.
The property was being filled so the landowner could
put up a storage building, McCaslin said.
But the ash pile looked like an open dump to him, so
he contacted the environmental protection cabinet. The
cabinet stepped in and stopped Western Kentucky Energy,
filing a notice of violation.
The fill was too large in relation to the size of the
building, said Ron Gruzesky, environmental engineering
branch manager in the cabinet's Division of Waste Management.
LG&E Energy, the parent company of Western Energy,
said in a letter from its legal staff to state officials
that it had done nothing wrong with the Hancock County
ash. The company said the Hancock project was like many
others the state allowed.
The company later decided not to proceed with the project,
said Caryl Pfeiffer, environmental affairs director for
McCaslin said the state never would have known about
the dumping if he hadn't called. ''I know we gotta have
power. But I think the state needs to get a better handle
on this stuff.''
State officials agreed with McCaslin's assessment.
Absent a permit-approval process, sometimes inspectors
must rely on tips from the public or local officials,
said Bill Burger, manager of the waste management division's
field operations branch.
As a remedy, the agency has recently recommended that
power plants and their haulers come to it first with their
construction fill plans -- even if the law doesn't require
''For the majority of cases, individuals are coming to
us ahead of time,'' said Robert Daniell, director of the
waste management division.
Using ash for construction fill is a legitimate practice
and one that the EPA wants to encourage, said Dennis Ruddy,
the EPA's point person on coal waste issues. But that's
only if ash is tested in advance for potential toxicity,
and if its placement is engineered to minimize its contact
with water, he said.
''If you back up a dump truck and fill up a hollow with
no pre-planning and engineering . . . that is what we
are trying to avoid.''
An eye to the future
EPA officials came close to classifying ash destined
for landfills, ponds or strip mines as hazardous two years
ago, after it found that 86 percent of groundwater samples
taken near ash landfills contained arsenic levels more
than 10 times the EPA's new health standard.
The determination could have cost the industry hundreds
of millions, if not several billions, of dollars. In the
end, the draft decision that would have done so was reversed
after industry lobbying.
EPA officials still intend to propose a national rule
on ash disposal to make sure that states follow a set
of minimum protections, Ruddy said.
''We're trying to keep track of where you put it for
future generations,'' he said. ''We're trying to prevent
He acknowledged that the rules might call for long-term
monitoring of ash landfills and places where ash is dumped
in strip mines.
With mine-filling, he said, the government may require
companies to post environmental performance bonds that
extend for decades, ensuring a pot of money to pay for
Originally, the EPA promised it would release the draft
rules next year, It has since moved the deadline back
to early 2004 because of a need for additional analyses,
Indiana's Natural Resources Commission in July preliminarily
approved the state's groundwater protection standards.
The DNR also announced it will seek a per-ton charge for
ash dumped in old strip mines to raise money for future
environmental cleanups if they're needed.
The groundwater standards also may force restrictions
on ash ponds, said Tim Method, deputy commissioner for
the Indiana environmental management department.
''We are going through a process to identify any activities
that currently are not regulated or are under-regulated,''
Method said. ''Ash ponds would fall on that list.''
The moves address only some of the critics' concerns.
The coal industry will likely fight any tax on ash disposal,
said Noland of the Indiana Coal Council.
''We are so close to seeing what the EPA is going to
recommend to the states,'' he said. ''To get ahead of
the EPA at this point does not make a lot of sense.''
Kentucky's environmental protection has called for several
changes, among them:
- The establishment of statewide groundwater standards.
- Groundwater monitoring at all ash ponds.
- Greater scrutiny of ash when used as construction
fill, including groundwater monitoring.
Patton administration officials have little hope
that the General Assembly will tighten the rules on
coal ash. Too many people in Kentucky think environmental
regulations have gone too far and are too costly,
said Logan, the environmental protection department
commissioner. So his cabinet is looking at what can
be done within existing laws, he said.
Regulators may not need to look further than the
state's new power plant siting law, which requires
greater scrutiny of new power plants.
''The legislature made it clear that if (new) plants
are going to site here in the state, they will be
expected to pay the full cost of doing business here,''
said Tom FitzGerald, director of the environmental
group Kentucky Resources Council, who helped write
the bill. ''They can't shift those costs . . . by
undermanaging their wastes.''