Once largely overlooked by regulators, fly ash dumps are gaining attention as potential pollution threats

Out of sight, and in the water

Fly ash concerns smolder in Maryland

November 11, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Les Marshall strode onto his dock in Southern Maryland, looking down at the brownish murk of the Wicomico River. Then he gestured upstream, toward a forested area where a power company has been dumping 150,000 tons of coal ash a year.

"When we first moved here in the 1970s, there were lots of grasses under the water, as well as clams, oyster beds, crabs and abundant fish," said Marshall, a retired satellite engineer. "And since then, the river is pretty much dead. The grasses are gone. The perch are gone."

Other factors might be involved in the river's decline, but state regulators say one source of pollution has been a landfill that receives coal ash from a nearby power plant and has over the years leaked acidic waste and metals into a Wicomico tributary.

Power company Mirant Corp. filters the runoff from its landfill in Faulkner, but the Maryland Department of the Environment believes that some tainted water might still be escaping. It is considering whether to require the Atlanta-based company to install more pollution controls.

The agency is also drafting tighter regulations for all ash dumps, after revelations that one in Anne Arundel County polluted local wells, drawing a $1 million fine. State officials haven't said exactly what they will require, but say the new mandates might include putting liners under every ash landfill to prevent rain from seeping through to contaminate underground water supplies.

Across the country, buried ash is a growing but widely ignored source of pollution from coal-fired power plants, according to a researcher who has studied them.

"We tend to put all our focus on airborne pollutants," said Christopher L. Rowe, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "This problem has been completely overlooked."

He said filters on the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants catch not only ash, but also mercury, arsenic, chromium and other potential carcinogens. Then the power companies dump the waste into loosely regulated landfills - from which dangerous metals can seep into streams and wells. So while the filters keep pollutants out of the air, the process "simply increases what we put into the aquatic environment," Rowe said.

Brad Heavner, director of the advocacy group Environment Maryland, said pollution from the Faulkner landfill and the one in Anne Arundel County raises questions about whether there are more leaky ash dumps across the state. "For decades this state has been mismanaging fly ash, and that should change immediately," Heavner said. "Right now, the law on fly ash is basically nonexistent."

There are at least six major ash dumps in Maryland that receive the waste from the burning of coal at power plants - one each in Charles, Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and two in Anne Arundel. But there are few rules governing these sites. At some dumps, the state doesn't require pollution control permits or liners to prevent leakage.

On Oct. 1 the Department of the Environment imposed a $1 million fine on Constellation Energy and dump operator BBSS Inc. for allowing metals such as arsenic, cadmium and thallium to seep into the drinking wells of 23 homes near the Gambrills dump site in Anne Arundel County.

"We have seen some instances ... where tighter controls were needed, and we need to make sure that, moving forward, tighter controls are in place," said Assistant Secretary Steve Pattison.

In Southern Maryland, the fly ash dump that opened in Faulkner in 1970 has a history of leaking contaminants. Potomac Electric Power Co. created the Charles County landfill to take ash from its Morgantown plant, about six miles south on the Potomac River. The power plant, which opened the same year as the landfill, supplies enough electricity to light about 1.5 million homes.

The plant burns pulverized coal. About a quarter of the 200,000 tons of waste ash it produces each year is recycled to make cinder blocks and cement. The remainder, 150,000 tons, is trucked - about 50 to 60 loads a day - to the landfill, where it is buried.

In 1995, Pepco paid $975,000 in federal fines after the landfill's supervisor was convicted of taking bribes and bypassing the treatment system, dumping pollution into Zekiah Swamp, a protected wildlife area. The contaminated water seeped into nearby waterways, "injuring vegetation and leaving orange coating ... in a nearby wetland and streams," according to a National Academies of Science report that examined the dump at Faulkner and other sites nationally.

The state required Pepco to improve its systems that collect and treat rainwater that trickles through the ash. But the systems didn't catch all of the contaminants, records show. The state fined Pepco another $50,000 in 2000 and required the utility and a successor company to build about $3 million more in pollution controls.

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