Over the coals

October 03, 2007

The $1 million fine levied by the Maryland Department of the Environment against Constellation Energy Group and the operator of an Anne Arundel County sand and gravel pit that's become a dump for power plant coal ash is a significant step toward correcting an intolerable situation. But it's only a step, and whether the state's response is adequate is not yet clear.

This much is certain: The fine imposed under the consent decree negotiated with Constellation and BBSS Inc. is hefty, particularly by state standards, and ought to serve as a warning to others. But even more important, it calls on the polluters in question to devise and implement a plan to clean up the Gambrills site, and that's likely to be costlier still.

Nearby residents are rightly concerned about the cancer-causing chemicals that have leached into the groundwater from the thousands of tons of coal ash trucked in from two local plants. At least 23 residential wells have failed federal drinking water standards, and officials fear that the groundwater pollution could spread farther. Elevated levels of pollution have been detected in at least 50 wells.

What will remediation entail? When will it take place, how will the heavy metals and toxics be removed and how will the site be monitored? All those specifics have yet to be worked out - and until they are, it's hard to pass judgment.

The bigger questions are where and how to dispose of all that coal ash, an unavoidable byproduct of coal combustion. It's a material that's been left largely unregulated by the federal government. The consent decree doesn't prevent the Gambrills site from being used for that purpose again - although that appears unlikely. A moratorium approved by the County Council on Monday prevents the creation of any disposal site in the county for at least one year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's failure to properly regulate the disposal of coal ash (despite acknowledging the need for such rules seven years ago) is at the heart of the problem. Maryland environmental officials say they are in the first stages of crafting regulations on the state level but don't expect to have much more to offer on the subject until the end of the year.

If the EPA can take seven years and produce nothing, it's fair for MDE to take several months if its efforts are productive. One would expect that, ultimately, Gambrills will be spared from serious health risks, and sensible requirements will be adopted to ensure that other communities are spared the same threat.

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