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Covering Our Ashes

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Most people understand the trouble with burning coal: soot, airborne mercury and greenhouse gasses. And awareness grows about the damage from mining coal, from polluted streams to blown-up mountains.

But another big problem is little recognized: disposing of what's left after the coal is burned for electricity.

Though this residue is commonly called "coal ash," it's actually a host of mineral byproducts, some carcinogenic. And U.S. power plants make a lot of it -- 136 million tons in 2008 alone.

Coal ash made national news in December 2008. In Kingston, Tenn., the earthen dam of a coal-ash impoundment burst, spreading 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge over 300 acres and polluting the Emory River. The impoundment was just one of about 600 such U.S. sites storing a liquid form of coal ash, while 300 landfills hold solid wastes from combustion.

Moreover, most ash reservoirs, which are typically utility-owned, are unlined, potentially allowing toxins like arsenic to seep into groundwater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes 27 such cases in a dozen states, and 40 more "potential damage cases." The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project documents 137 cases in 34 states.

Yet this humongous waste stream has never been federally regulated. And environmentalists say existing state oversight is inadequate for facilities like Little Blue Run, northwest of Pittsburgh. First Energy's 1,300-acre impoundment, located mostly in Beaver County, is the largest such site east of the Mississippi.

Following the Kingston disaster, the EPA proposed the first-ever national rules on coal ash, offering two options. The differences between them are stark.

One alternative is to regulate coal ash under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requiring federal permitting of disposal facilities. The other, under RCRA Subtitle D, would set "performance standards" to be implemented by the states.

The proposals overlap somewhat. Both, for example, would require liners on new landfills, and that groundwater be monitored on landfills. But there are big differences: Option "C," for instance, would phase out surface impoundments like Little Blue; D would require only that they be lined.

A public hearing on the proposal held Sept. 21 in Pittsburgh, one of eight nationally, drew more than 150 speakers. Testimony in an Omni Hotel ballroom, Downtown, played out predictably: Environmental groups and neighbors of coal-ash sites prefer C; utilities and other industry want D. 

Neighbors of the sites cited concerns about health effects from dust and contaminated water. Debbie Havens, who lived in nearby Chester, W.Va., when Little Blue was created in 1975, described her own health problems -- including asthma and "full-body tremors" -- and her fears for her two sons, now grown. "What have I done by raising them here all my life?" she asked. Her husband, Curtis, survived thyroid cancer.

Industry representatives, meanwhile, spoke of regulatory burden and electricity price increases. Subtitle C is "the most burdensome and costly option," said Jim Roewer, head of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a trade organization.

Also controversial was how new rules might affect the so-called "beneficial use" of coal ash. About 37 percent of coal ash is reused by industry, substituting for things like Portland cement in concrete and mined gypsum in wallboard.

Though critics question uses of "unencapsulated" ash (as fertilizer or winter road treatments), the EPA and many environmental groups consider some beneficial uses desirable. And industry contends that choosing option C -- which is usually reserved for hazardous waste -- would "stigmatize" coal ash, weakening the beneficial-use market.

Still, perhaps where the two options differ most is enforcement. Subtitle C lets the EPA fine violators; D leaves enforcement to lawsuits brought by private citizens or state governments.

Indeed, EPA assumes that under option D, its new rules would achieve only a 48 percent compliance rate. (That's one reason D would cost an estimated $587 million a year, just 40 percent of what C would cost.) And groups, including the Environmental Integrity Project, warn that option D "could lead to no change at all" in ash disposal, says EIP attorney Lisa Widawsky.

Citizens who missed the hearings can still weigh in. The EPA will accept written comments on coal ash through Nov. 19, by mail or via rcra-Docket@epa.gov (use the subject line Attention Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-RCRA-2009-0640).

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