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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,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

A few months ago, prompted by the Gambrills and Charles County problems, Maryland imposed rules regulating any new landfills where coal ash would be dumped. The state also tightened oversight of ash disposal in mines, ordering more testing of nearby waterways before and as it's being placed in the ground. The tests must check for arsenic and the other toxic chemicals found in ash.

But other than more testing, mine disposal is not subject to the same safeguards as when coal ash is dumped anywhere else. Ash put in landfills must be kept away from ground water with a heavy plastic barrier, and monitoring wells must surround the site to give early warning if any contaminants leak out.

Maryland officials say that liners aren't needed in mines, because the ash is being dumped well above the water table and in relatively small amounts.

Warrior Run is depositing 370,000 tons of ash in four Allegany mines, according to an AES report to the state. That's much less than the estimated 8 million tons Constellation poured into the Gambrills gravel pits.

State regulators say monitoring wells aren't practical at mines, because they are so far above the water table. Instead, mines are required to test water seeping from springs at the base of slopes or in creeks downstream from the mine. Also, officials say, they only allow alkaline ash to be dumped in mines, so it will help neutralize acid mine drainage. Warrior Run's ash is highly alkaline because the power plant burns coal with limestone to reduce air pollution.

Environmentalists say Maryland's new coal-ash disposal regulations are better than those in many states but are still inadequate when it comes to mine disposal.

"It doesn't seem like the gap has been plugged," said Earthjustice's Evans. "We still have potential problems that can occur from this waste. It's just going to a location that is arguably more distant, and it's a little harder to tell what the impacts will be."

Neither Maryland nor most other states require sufficient testing of water for ash contaminants, contends Jeffrey Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group led by a former EPA enforcement official. State rules only require water monitoring for five years after the mine has been reclaimed. Stant said problems may not show up for a decade or more after the ash has been put in the ground.

While state officials say there hasn't been evidence of coal ash harming Western Maryland streams, others say it may not be easily discernible. Even contaminants not at levels deemed unsafe for humans can affect fish and other water-dwelling creatures.

"It's kind of subtle and insidious, because you rarely see things like fish kills," said Christopher Rowe, a toxicologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He and other researchers have found frogs and lizards with deformities and other problems in ash-contaminated ponds in southern states. Developmental and reproductive problems might not kill creatures right away, but could affect their abundance and diversity over time.

At 400 acres, the Carlos mine operated by ICG Inc. is one of the largest surface excavations for coal in Maryland. State mine regulators and mine officials showed a reporter last week how ash is deposited in gashes in the hill from which coal has been excavated, then buried under tons of dirt and rock. The ash dumped there is gray and damp, a bit like sand - wetted down, officials say, to keep it from becoming airborne.

As the earth movers finish extracting coal from the hill, the land is restored to its original contour and replanted with trees, officials said. Rainfall running off the slope is channeled to settling ponds before draining into Staub Run, a stream that empties into George's Creek, a tributary of the Potomac.

The stream has been tested every three months for evidence of mine-related pollution, and the readings "aren't particularly high," according to Alan Hooker, chief of the state's mine permitting.

Still, Staub Run suffers from "an impaired fish and aquatic insect community" and from other evidence of suspected acid mine drainage, according to MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus. The area has been mined for decades, so it's hard to tell whether the problems are from mining occurring now or the legacy of past mining activity in the area, she said.

The new testing will help determine whether arsenic or other chemicals found in ash may be contributing to that pollution.

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