From the time that Casper Hackmann first noticed trucks trundling into his tiny, blue-collar north Anne Arundel County neighborhood bearing mammoth mounds of fly ash in 1982, he began worrying about the health risks.
The gray, powder-like ash, a byproduct of burning coal at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s nearby Brandon Shores power plant, often blew onto his front porch and yard along Solley Road. Hackmann worried about his family breathing it, and he wondered whether it was making its way into their well.
Over the next 17 years, Hackmann and his neighbors battled BGE to stop the utility from leaving 4 million tons of ash in their quiet Solley community on the Marley Neck peninsula. But BGE has insisted that the substance poses no health risk, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has regulated fossil fuel combustion wastes as nonhazardous since 1976.
But this week, Hackmann and his neighbors may be vindicated. A recent internal EPA study obtained by The Sun suggests that fly ash could pose health threats if it leaches into drinking water. The agency has proposed regulating ash and sludge from coal-fired plants as hazardous waste -- a move that could cost utilities nationwide as much as $5 billion a year. The White House is expected to decide by tomorrow whether to grant the EPA the authority to enforce the new regulations.
"I'm happy that they're considering it; I think it's long overdue," said Hackmann, 77, a retired pipe fitter who was born in Solley and has lived there all his life. "I always felt we were right. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what's going to happen to you over time, breathing in that stuff."
BGE began hauling fly ash into Solley in 1982 to use as structural fill to build the 103-acre Brandon Woods Business Park. The utility burns about 6 million tons of coal a year, producing about 600,000 tons of fly ash. Over 17 years, the utility piled up 4 million tons of ash -- which becomes like concrete after water is added -- on the site, put on a layer of soil and built two phases of the business park on top.
'Like pepper' on snow
"They were bringing it in, they were dumping it, it was flying around. I didn't think this was very good debris," said Ruth Bell, 54, a Solley resident who owns a banquet hall near BGE's business park. "It's black dust. It gave me the feeling of being in a coal mine. One time it snowed, and the fly ash was all over the snow; it looked like pepper."
So the residents gathered and called themselves the Coalition of Communities and Citizens Against Flyash. In 1997, when BGE began planning to build a third phase of the business park, residents pooled their resources and hired a high-powered environmental lawyer from Washington to fight the proposal.
The attorney, John B. Britton Jr., brought in a water expert from New Jersey to testify that increasing amounts of metals were being found in the community's drinking water. A BGE spokeswoman called it "bad science," and the utility's experts said the ash contained silica, alumina and iron oxide -- materials found in ordinary soil. They testified that BGE's monitoring of ground water in Solley since it began placing ash in the community showed no signs of contamination.
Utility calls a truce
But in January 1998, the residents beat their Goliath when an Anne Arundel County judge ordered BGE to build a $10 million clay liner beneath the planned Phase 3 of Brandon Woods Business Park to prevent the ash from contaminating underground aquifers. After losing an appeal, the utility called a truce last year and agreed to not place any more fly ash in Solley.
Stephen Pattison, BGE's air and waste management supervisor, said the utility decided to stop placing ash in Solley because it began processing the ash to remove its high-carbon content. The low-carbon ash is then sold to be converted into concrete. BGE ash has helped build such projects as the Washington Redskins' FedEx Field and a portion of Key Highway.
Of the 600,000 tons of fly ash that BGE produced last year, Pattison estimated that 17 percent was processed or used for construction projects. This year, the utility hopes to increase that ratio to 35 percent. The remainder is placed in a quarry in Crofton and a landfill in Baltimore County.
Pattison said he is anxiously watching the White House decision this week because it could cost BGE millions of dollars. He worries that the market for its processed low-carbon ash could dry up if the EPA gives fly ash a hazardous waste classification.
"Our concern is the stigma that would be created by the material being regulated as a hazardous waste," Pattison said. "I don't think that [fly ash] justifies the kinds of controls that are available when you compare this type of waste material with other materials that are truly hazardous. You're talking about pesticides, solvents, materials that truly can be a threat to human health."
But the EPA recently studied plants in Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia, and found that 86 percent of ground water samples contained arsenic concentrations more than 10 times the agency's new health standard. The study reported excess lead in ground water near a New York ash landfill.
Pattison said that BGE is not saying that no controls should be required on fly ash but is anxious to ensure that it is not over-regulated. Pattison emphasized that BGE's monitoring of ground water in the Solley community has not reflected any contamination.
"Our [ground water monitoring] wells here have been in place for 20 years," he said. "We've not experienced any problems."
He said he fears that by classifying fly ash as hazardous, the EPA could create a Superfund cleanup site on Brandon Woods Business Park. The state Department of the Environment has written to the federal agency to assert that fly ash should not be regulated as a hazardous waste.
In Solley, the atmosphere is also laced with anxiety. Word has spread in the past week that the federal government may finally confirm the gut feeling that many residents have had about the toxicity of the mounds of powdery substance across the street.
"Most of the residents thought we were crying wolf, and BGE fed into that by saying, 'Well, [fly ash] is the same as dirt,'" said Del. Mary M. Rosso, a Democrat who has lived in Solley for 42 years and helped found the coalition. "I always felt that we were people who were really concerned, who knew better."
Although these residents are hopeful that the EPA will classify fly ash as a hazardous waste, years of contentious court volleys with BGE have told them that they should not rejoice until the White House announces its decision.
"I really hope for this community's sake and other communities that the government finally does take a stand and say, 'We need to regulate this,'" said Bell, a member of the coalition. "I'll keep working until that happens."