Debate smolders on coal ash safety

State data showing no evidence of harm to streams does little to quell environmental, health concerns

March 08, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,

FROSTBURG -The state fined Constellation Energy $1 million for contaminating wells in Gambrills by dumping millions of tons of ash from its power plants in old gravel mines there.

But with the state's blessing, another energy company is dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of ash into active mine pits in Western Maryland. Eighteen-wheel trucks routinely deposit steaming loads of ash from the Warrior Run power plant at a hillside coal mine overlooking the hamlet of Carlos just south of here.

The difference, state officials say, is that they consider dumping ash into coal mines beneficial for Western Maryland's streams, which suffer from acidic pollution draining from mined lands. The ash from the Warrior Run plant helps prevent acid from leaching out of the rubble left behind after the coal is extracted, they say. It's also a money-saver for the power company - AES, based in Arlington, Va. - since it doesn't have to pay for costly disposal in a state-regulated landfill.

But environmental activists call the practice of filling coal mines with ash a worrisome experiment that has not proved to be environmentally safe - and they are asking for federal regulations to govern the disposal of ash, with its many harmful chemicals.

"It's waste disposal, not mine reclamation," contends Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice. "I don't know that in every circumstance it will cause harm, but we have seen it cause harm in enough mines and landfills and surface impoundments that safeguards are absolutely required."

Coal ash is the waste produced by burning coal - light fly ash collected in the smokestack, plus heavier bottom ash left after the fire has consumed the fossil fuel. The nation's power plants produce enough ash from the coal they burn to fill 1 million railroad cars a year, according to a 2006 report by the National Research Council. Maryland's coal-burning power plants produce about 2 million tons of ash a year, state officials estimate.

Nationally, most of it is deposited in landfills and man-made ponds, where there have been a number of problems. Recently, an earthen dam in Tennessee ruptured, releasing millions of tons of coal-ash sludge that destroyed homes and fouled a river.

In Maryland, in addition to the Gambrills well contamination, an ash landfill in Charles County has polluted streams feeding the Zekiah Swamp. Those problems have led to calls for stricter federal regulation of coal ash disposal, and the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, has vowed to reconsider her agency's decision to leave oversight largely to the states.

Environmentalists say similar federal attention should be paid to the growing use of coal ash in mine reclamation. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining in the Bush administration drafted regulations that environmentalists criticized as too weak, and then did not issue them. The rules are now under review.

In Maryland, 18 mines in Allegany and Garrett counties are permitted to accept coal ash, though it is not clear how many have actually received any.

State officials contend that despite the lack of federal rules, they have imposed safeguards on the decade-old practice of using the ash in mine reclamation in Western Maryland. Both mine and power plant operators have been required to take precautions to prevent stream or ground-water contamination, they say, and the ash has helped to ease the acidic pollution fouling streams, particularly from old underground mines that have long since been abandoned.

"There are some very good uses of this material when properly used," says Paul Petzrick of the power plant research program at the state Department of Natural Resources. The National Research Council agreed in a report, but its panel of independent scientists cautioned that toxic substances in coal become concentrated in the ash after it is burned. They urged enforceable federal requirements for more testing of the ash, of the mine sites and of the water leaving the mines.

Environmentalists say the state-by-state patchwork of oversight isn't enough. An environmental group's study of coal ash dumped in 15 Pennsylvania mines, for instance, found that water quality actually worsened at 10 of them. State officials there dispute the finding.

It's not clear if the ash has put harmful chemicals in Western Maryland waterways. The state has been testing mainly for evidence of acid mine drainage over the years - not for arsenic, lead, selenium and the rest of the toxic potpourri of metals and minerals found in much higher concentrations in ash than in raw coal. Those substances can cause cancer, nerve damage or other health problems for people, fish and insects.

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