Controlling coal ash

Our view : State regulations are an improvement but not a full solution to the problem

December 05, 2008

New regulations covering the disposal of coal ash and related byproducts of coal combustion that went into effect this week in Maryland are a helpful start but only part of a solution to a serious waste disposal problem. Much more needs to be done on both the state and federal level.

The problem was brought to light by the experience in Anne Arundel County where scores of residential wells were found to be polluted by potentially cancer-causing chemicals leaching from a former sand and gravel pit in Gambrills where power plant coal ash was dumped. A hefty $1 million fine was levied last year, and Constellation Energy Group now trucks the waste to Virginia.

But moving thousands of tons of ash and slag to an out-of-state dump is far from the ideal resolution in terms of energy efficiency and preserving environmental quality. The regulations approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment set better standards for landfills that handle coal ash - but good luck to any business interested in creating a new facility.

That's because MDE doesn't have the resources to review applications in a timely fashion and hire experts, investigate sites and take the other necessary (and now mandated) measures to ensure safe disposal.

Why? Because the General Assembly failed to approve legislation this year that would have given the agency the authority to charge the owners of coal-fired power plants and other waste generators a fee. The estimated $750,000 collected would have financed the state's regulatory efforts. Lawmakers need to correct that mistake when they reconvene in January.

But the shortcomings don't stop there. Maryland also needs to make sure more of the state's 2 million tons of coal ash are recycled where appropriate. Instead of filling up landfills, more of the coal ash can be used in building materials such as cinder block or concrete.

MDE officials say promoting such beneficial uses of coal ash is the goal of a second round of regulations the agency expects to publish next year.

Still, what's needed are federal regulations that would make it impossible for power generators to simply ship their waste to states with lax environmental rules. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been studying the matter for years to little effect. The departure of George W. Bush from the White House may give new life to the efforts, but that awaits to be seen.

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