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A new year - out of the ashes of the old

So 2009 is here already, with the promise of lots of news for the bay and the environment.  I'm back to cover it, after an unexpectedly long hiatus.  What had been planned as a weeklong break over the holidays suddenly became two with a back injury, which was no holiday at all. I hurt it cleaning off my old desk - a sharp reminder, if ever I needed one, of the need to reduce, reuse and recycle, at least when it comes to paper.

While I was away, there was big news about a massive spill of coal ash sludge in Tennessee.  A pond holding an estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of ash - the byproducts of burning coal in power plants - broke through a dike holding it and blanketed about 300 acres, knocking one house off its foundations, flooding around a few dozen others and fouling a river.  The Dec. 23 photo at left comes courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owned the power plant that generated all the ash.

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The sludge flood, which in volume at least eclipsed the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska two decades ago, is generating renewed calls for regulation of coal ash because it contains a variety of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

Maryland does not have any similar ash-laden holding ponds, according to Robert Ballinger of the state Department of the Environment.  But this state has had its share of coal ash woes - just last week, a Baltimore judge approved a $54 million settlement between Constellation Energy and residents in the Gambrills area of Anne Arundel County over well contamination and other harm caused by dumping tons of ash in old quarry pits there. (The settlement previously was reported to be $45 million - the higher figure includes attorneys' fees, I'm told by my colleague Julie Scharper, who reported on last weeks' development.)  Constellation has agreed to pay for connecting 84 homes in the area to public water and to clean up the old quarries.

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Driven largely by public outcry over the Gambrills incident, the state decreed about six weeks ago that all new coal-ash disposal sites would have to have water-proof liners to keep toxic chemicals from seeping into the ground water.  The ash would also have to be covered to keep it from being blown onto neighboring properties.  The rules do not impose any safeguards, though, on the use of the ash in production of concrete or in "structural fill" at construction sites.  About half of the 2 million tons of ash generated annually by the state's eight coal-burning power plants is used in such ways, according to the state.  The state plans to propose regulations of those uses in the coming year.

Even so, regulation varies by state.  Since being banned from dumping the coal ash from its Brandon Shores power plant in Gambrills, Constellation has been trucking it to Virginia.  Environmental groups contend national regulation is needed.   The Environmental Protection Agency has been studying the issue for years, and even proposed regulations in 2000, but has never acted.   That may be about to change - the spill will be the focus of a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday.

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