Ash under fire

August 31, 2007

The cancer-causing metals detected in more than 50 wells in Gambrills have provided ample proof of the dangers posed by improper coal ash disposal. But now it's up to state and federal regulators to craft a solution beyond simply banning ash from Anne Arundel County.

At issue is an 80-acre sand and gravel surface mine where coal ash has been used as fill material since the mid-1990s. That's not an uncommon way to dispose of ash - the fine mineral remains of coal combustion - but, in retrospect, the relatively porous and unlined excavations at Gambrills were ill-suited for this purpose.

Over time, metals and other contaminants such as arsenic and beryllium have apparently leached into the groundwater. At least 23 of the nearby wells failed federal drinking water standards.

Investigators believe the problem (which was first reported to county health officials last October) was caught early enough to minimize the health risk, and the Maryland Department of the Environment is expected to soon reach an agreement with the property owner that will require some kind of remediation.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold is unhappy that owner BBSS Inc. was given a permit more than a decade ago to dispose of ash produced by two Constellation Energy Group coal-fired power plants. That's understandable - with the benefit of hindsight. But his proposal to ban coal ash disposal entirely is not going to solve the underlying problem. It just moves it into someone else's backyard.

What's needed are broader statewide (or, even better, nationwide) protections that ensure this contamination won't happen elsewhere, too. One reason coal ash is largely unregulated now is that it's never been considered hazardous. Much of it is processed into cement and other construction material - without ill effects.

More than a quarter-century ago, Congress directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the impact of coal ash. In 2000, agency officials determined that it needs to be regulated, but they have yet to take action. Such passivity must be contagious: Maryland officials have only recently decided to tackle the matter on their own and expect to propose safeguards for proper coal ash disposal by year's end.

Constellation's coal-fired power plants in Maryland produce 850,000 tons of coal ash each year. Company officials say they, too, recognize that greater protections are in order. That's helpful, but what's really required are tough new rules - and a government agency willing to enforce them. Without that, a moratorium on coal ash disposal would be well-justified.

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