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The Debate Over Toxic Coal Ash
James Bruggers
The Courier-Journal

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 strip mines.

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 their ash.

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 pollution.

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, he said.

''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 caution.

''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 sites seasonally.

''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 air emissions.

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 said.

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 in Indiana.

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, Ethel Zink.

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 ash.''

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 said.

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 of caution.''

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 plain.

''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 them.

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 a landfill.

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 LG&E Energy.

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 it.

''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 future problems.''

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 future remediation.

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, he said.

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.''

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