Tag Archives: coal ash

EPA Cannot Sweep Toxic Coal Ash Under the Rug

When coal is burned, roughly ten percent remains behind in mineral form that is contaminated with toxic heavy metals.  In coming years, as more coal-fired plants install scrubbers, this proportion will rise.  The already large stream of toxic coal combustion residues (CCRs) will grow significantly.

At present, we have only a patchwork of state regulations.  Maryland recently (2008) implemented CCR regulations for the first time.

Under pressure from a White House responsive to utilities, EPA has offered a weaker option that would treat toxic coal combustion waste like household garbage under state regulation.  The more protective alternative would designate the stuff as a “special waste” and put it under federal regulation.

Economist John Howley, editor of MarylandEnergyReport.org, presented oral and written comments to the USEPA at an Arlington public hearing.   The comments examined Maryland’s recent experience with regulation toxic coal combustion waste.

Under the Healthy Air Act, scrubbers have been installed on all of Maryland’s coal-fired power plants and production of coal combustion waste has been predicted by the Maryland Department of the Environment to more than double.  At present, most of Maryland’s CCRs are shipped out of state.  Absent strong federal regulation, we could witness an explosive growth in unregulated inter-state shipments of CCRs in coming years.

For an update on the kind of damage toxic coal waste can leave in its wake, see this recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and Sierra Club: IN HARM’S WAY: Lack Of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans And Their Environment – Thirty-nine New Damage Cases of Contamination from Improperly Disposed Coal Combustion Waste.

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Maryland Protections on Toxic Coal Ash Coming Soon?

Maryland gets about 60 percent of its in-state electricity from generation plants burning toxic coal.  According to the Maryland Department of the Environment:

A total of approximately 2 million tons of coal ash (fly and bottom ash) is generated annually from Maryland plants. Approximately 1.6 million tons of coal ash (fly and bottom ash) is generated in Maryland annually from the plants owned and operated by Constellation and Mirant.

The combustion residues are heavily laced with a variety of deadly contaminants, including heavy metals.  To date, the industry has gotten away with treating this toxic waste like ordinary waste.  “Clean coal” is a fine dream but that’s all it is.

A new report from Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice describes conditions at 31 of the nation’s toxic coal ash disposal sites: Out of Control: Mounting Damages From Coal Ash Waste Sites.

Featured in the report is Maryland’s own Brandywine Coal Ash Landfill owned and operated by Mirant. What tasty goodies have been found in surface and ground waters according to the Maryland Department of the Environment?

Cadmium, selenium, lead, manganese, iron, aluminum, sulfates, total dissolved solids, and chlorides (see page 25)

What’s the latest on Brandywine?

Citizen groups sent a notice of intent to sue to Mirant MD Ash Management, LLC and Mirant Mid-Atlantic, LLC for violations of the Clean Water Act on November 19, 2009, and MDE sent a separate notice of intent to sue for similar violations on January 15, 2010.  The citizen groups and MDE claim that Mirant is discharging pollutants into groundwater without a permit.  They also allege that Mirant is discharging antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, mercury, nitrate, nitrogen, phenols, radium, and silver from outfalls without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.  In addition, the citizen groups and MDE claim that Mirant is discharging cadmium from outfalls at levels that exceed state water quality standards.

Here’s more on the citizens’ complaint.

The Obama administration is dithering deliberating carefully over whether this nastiness should be re-classified as hazardous waste, triggering a higher level of handling in order to protect human health.  The EPA’s regulatory agenda says they plan to issue a rule in April 2010.  Friends of toxic coal, of course, want to continue the free ride.

MDE is moving ahead with its own regulations:

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has completed drafting regulations for the beneficial use and transportation of coal combustion byproducts (CCBs) as required by Maryland law.  House Bill 1305 of the 2009 Legislative Session required that draft regulations be submitted to the Administrative, Executive, Legislative Review (AELR) Committee by December 31, 2009.  Due to the technical complexity of the regulations, MDE announced on December 30, 2009, that it will be submitting the draft regulations to AELR Committee no later than January 14, 2010.  The Department submitted the draft proposals on both regulations to the AELR Committee as previously announced. The Department anticipates that these regulations may be proposed in the February 26, 2010 edition of the Maryland Register. [Emphasis added.]

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Where to Dump Coal Ash?

How many times have we heard it?  Coal is cheap!

How cheap is coal depends on how cheaply we value human life.  This question comes up whenever we decide where to dump toxic coal dust.

Maximiliano Calcano is 2 and was born with no arms.

“When I was pregnant, I was dizzy, vomiting and could barely walk,” said Maximiliano’s mother, Anajai Calcaño, 20. “My tooth cracked and fell out. Then my baby was born like that, without arms. Nothing like that had ever happened here before.”

So long as victims of coal-ash poisoning remain silent and powerless, then coal will remain cheap.  The US EPA has not classified coal ash as hazardous waste — yet.

She lives in a small wooden house with no indoor plumbing in a rural village in northern Dominican Republic, not far from where coal ash generated by Virginia-based AES Corp. wound up at the edge of the sea. More than 50,000 tons of coal ash laden with heavy metals was left at a port abutting local homes…

Maximiliano may yet get compensation for her injuries in a Delaware court.

60 Minutes recently broadcast its investigation of the looming coal-ash disaster.

In fact, coal ash dumps are so dangerous, the Department of Homeland Security is keeping the list of their locations a secret.

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Coal Ash Is Hazardous Waste

Coal is…dirty and dangerous when you mine it….when you “prep” it….when you ship it…when you burn it…AND when you dispose of coal ash.

Let’s talk about that last dirty and dangerous step.  Coal ash contains a variety of toxic heavy metals.  And the stuff is piling up at a tremendous rate.  We produced

131 million tons in 2007, up from less than 90 million tons in 1990.

Disposal of toxic coal ash has sparked controversy in Maryland where Constellation seeks a permit to dump in Curtis Bay.

Perhaps you recall the TVA’s huge coal-ash disaster that happened around the winter holidays?  The TVA is spending $1.2 billion to clean it up.  Its plan for disposing of this toxic waste  involves finding a poor and powerless community and dumping it there.  The TVA headed south to Alabama.

Problem is, all the folks in Perry County aren’t as dumb and desperate as TVA hoped.

Some residents worry that their leaders are taking a short-term view, and that their community has been too easily persuaded to take on a wealthier, whiter community’s problem. “Money ain’t worth everything,” said Mary Gibson Holley, 74, a black retired teacher in Uniontown. “In the long run, they ain’t looking about what this could do to the community if something goes wrong.”

In exchange for 30 temporary jobs for local folks and a one-time injection of $3 million into the county budget, Perry County gets to host permanently three million cubic yards of

…coal ash from a power plant [that] has a higher concentration of toxins because mercury, arsenic and other substances that are filtered out by air pollution controls end up in the ash.

And don’t forget the radioactive elements:

when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.  (See Scientific American article.)

Imagine what it would cost to clean up if the federal government did its job and classified this stuff as hazardous waste?

Since the spill in Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency has promised to issue new regulations for coal ash, potentially classifying it as a hazardous waste.

That’s what keeps coal executives awake at night.

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