EPA proposes coal-ash curbs

Nationwide rules similar to Maryland's

May 04, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new nationwide curbs Tuesday on the disposal of coal ash, which could lead to even tighter restrictions than those now imposed in Maryland since ash from a Baltimore power plant fouled drinking-water wells in Anne Arundel County.

"The time has come for common-sense national protections to assure safe disposal of these materials," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a telephone news conference announcing the proposed rules. Her announcement, repeatedly delayed since late last year, ratchets up a prolonged debate about how to handle the environmental and health risks from the extensive byproducts of burning coal.

The agency actually unveiled two competing regulatory approaches, one that would treat the ash as a type of hazardous waste and another that would handle it as a general industrial waste. Electric utilities and other industry groups have pressed for the less-stringent tack, but Jackson said federal officials would choose after a 90-day public comment period.

Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said state officials welcomed the federal initiative, though it wasn't clear how it would affect ash disposal here. The state required two years ago that any new landfill taking coal ash must have a liner to keep toxic contaminants out of groundwater, must collect and treat any water leaching from the site, and must put in monitoring wells to detect underground pollution early.

The state's rules were adopted after officials discovered that homeowners' wells in Gambrills had been contaminated by ash from Constellation Energy's Brandon Shores power plant, which was being dumped in a nearby gravel pit. The company paid $54 million to settle a lawsuit by the homeowners, plus a $1 million state fine for polluting the groundwater. The state also is suing Atlanta-based Mirant Corp. over alleged pollution from two ash landfills it has in Southern Maryland.

The EPA calls for safeguards similar to Maryland's on new landfills taking ash. The agency also would require a five-year phase-out of wet ash impoundments like the one in Kingston, Tenn., that ruptured in December 2008, displacing residents and fouling a river.

But if the EPA opts to treat ash as hazardous, it could lead to even tighter restrictions on burying the material in Maryland, suggested Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group.

Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official, said the agency's proposal could require more extensive groundwater monitoring around ash landfills than Maryland stipulates, and it may limit the state's ability to grant waivers to its requirements.

The state is considering issuing its first permit for burying ash under its 2008 rules, to Constellation Energy for waste from its Brandon Shores plant. The proposed landfill in Hawkins Point in southern Baltimore is opposed by residents in northern Anne Arundel County, who fear the material could get into the Patapsco River or become airborne, despite state safeguards. Constellation spokesman Kevin Thornton said executives are still studying the EPA proposal, but he said the company is committed to complying with all state and federal requirements for its ash disposal.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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