Les Marshall strode onto his dock in Southern Maryland, looking down at the brownish murk of the Wicomico River. Then he gestured upstream, toward a forested area where a power company has been dumping 150,000 tons of coal ash a year.
"When we first moved here in the 1970s, there were lots of grasses under the water, as well as clams, oyster beds, crabs and abundant fish," said Marshall, a retired satellite engineer. "And since then, the river is pretty much dead. The grasses are gone. The perch are gone."
Other factors might be involved in the river's decline, but state regulators say one source of pollution has been a landfill that receives coal ash from a nearby power plant and has over the years leaked acidic waste and metals into a Wicomico tributary.
Power company Mirant Corp. filters the runoff from its landfill in Faulkner, but the Maryland Department of the Environment believes that some tainted water might still be escaping. It is considering whether to require the Atlanta-based company to install more pollution controls.
The agency is also drafting tighter regulations for all ash dumps, after revelations that one in Anne Arundel County polluted local wells, drawing a $1 million fine. State officials haven't said exactly what they will require, but say the new mandates might include putting liners under every ash landfill to prevent rain from seeping through to contaminate underground water supplies.
Across the country, buried ash is a growing but widely ignored source of pollution from coal-fired power plants, according to a researcher who has studied them.
"We tend to put all our focus on airborne pollutants," said Christopher L. Rowe, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "This problem has been completely overlooked."
He said filters on the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants catch not only ash, but also mercury, arsenic, chromium and other potential carcinogens. Then the power companies dump the waste into loosely regulated landfills - from which dangerous metals can seep into streams and wells. So while the filters keep pollutants out of the air, the process "simply increases what we put into the aquatic environment," Rowe said.
Brad Heavner, director of the advocacy group Environment Maryland, said pollution from the Faulkner landfill and the one in Anne Arundel County raises questions about whether there are more leaky ash dumps across the state. "For decades this state has been mismanaging fly ash, and that should change immediately," Heavner said. "Right now, the law on fly ash is basically nonexistent."
There are at least six major ash dumps in Maryland that receive the waste from the burning of coal at power plants - one each in Charles, Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and two in Anne Arundel. But there are few rules governing these sites. At some dumps, the state doesn't require pollution control permits or liners to prevent leakage.
On Oct. 1 the Department of the Environment imposed a $1 million fine on Constellation Energy and dump operator BBSS Inc. for allowing metals such as arsenic, cadmium and thallium to seep into the drinking wells of 23 homes near the Gambrills dump site in Anne Arundel County.
"We have seen some instances ... where tighter controls were needed, and we need to make sure that, moving forward, tighter controls are in place," said Assistant Secretary Steve Pattison.
In Southern Maryland, the fly ash dump that opened in Faulkner in 1970 has a history of leaking contaminants. Potomac Electric Power Co. created the Charles County landfill to take ash from its Morgantown plant, about six miles south on the Potomac River. The power plant, which opened the same year as the landfill, supplies enough electricity to light about 1.5 million homes.
The plant burns pulverized coal. About a quarter of the 200,000 tons of waste ash it produces each year is recycled to make cinder blocks and cement. The remainder, 150,000 tons, is trucked - about 50 to 60 loads a day - to the landfill, where it is buried.
In 1995, Pepco paid $975,000 in federal fines after the landfill's supervisor was convicted of taking bribes and bypassing the treatment system, dumping pollution into Zekiah Swamp, a protected wildlife area. The contaminated water seeped into nearby waterways, "injuring vegetation and leaving orange coating ... in a nearby wetland and streams," according to a National Academies of Science report that examined the dump at Faulkner and other sites nationally.
The state required Pepco to improve its systems that collect and treat rainwater that trickles through the ash. But the systems didn't catch all of the contaminants, records show. The state fined Pepco another $50,000 in 2000 and required the utility and a successor company to build about $3 million more in pollution controls.
Mirant bought the 950-acre landfill site in 2000 when it also purchased the Morgantown power plant. Thirteen of those acres are a black pit where trucks dump ash. Another 128 acres are former waste areas now covered in dirt and grass.
As recently as 2001, Bowling Creek, which flows into Zekiah Swamp and eventually the Wicomico River, had an acidity level high enough to kill fish, according to state and federal reports.
A 2006 study by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found that some streams near the landfill have improved in recent years. But sulfate pollution levels downstream are not expected to return to normal within the next 50 years, according to the report.
Mirant officials deny that the dump is hurting the Wicomico River, saying the 35 million gallons of water that pours out annually into Zekiah Swamp Run, a tributary to the Wicomico, is treated and filtered. "We've done studies, and they don't attribute any loss of aquatic life to the fly ash," said Misty Allen, a Mirant spokeswoman.
During a recent tour, company officials showed a large ash pit lined with clay, where trucks dumped waste. They also pointed to containment ponds that collect rainwater after it washes through the ash. A treatment system adds pellets of a baking-powder-like substance to reduce acidity, they said.
"I'll drink this water, if you want me to - I don't have any problem with it," said James Wight, a supervisor for Mirant, as he gulped a mouthful of partially treated effluent.
But the Department of the Environment is worried that some pollution might still be escaping, said Carol Coates, chief of water enforcement. So the state is studying whether to require more pollution controls when it issues a new industrial discharge control permit to Mirant, Coates said.
Because of an exemption in the law that dates back more than a decade, not all ash landfills operate under such permits, which are typically required of factories and other facilities that discharge waste into waterways.
Mirant has told the state agency that water from the dump probably will continue to exceed the acidity limits in its permit, which expired five years ago. So the company is asking the state to provide some "relief" with a lower standard in its new permit, according to e-mail correspondence obtained through a Public Information Act request.
MDE spokesman Robert Ballinger said the state will deny this request. "We are not going to lower the standards," he said.
Charles County tried last year to force the landfill to reduce its intake of ash by 50 percent over five years. Mirant sued, and a court in September struck down the county's limits.
"There is still some leakage, and some leachate coming out, and that's a big concern because there may be mercury in it," said John Buchanan, assistant county attorney.
Some residents who live around the landfill said they don't drink water from their wells because it smells bad and looks cloudy.
"That's exactly what we are afraid of - that the pollution will get into our drinking water," said Robert Brown, a service station manager who lives beside the landfill.
After The Sun asked the MDE about the foul-smelling water, the agency asked Mirant to test the wells of homes nearby and report the results to the state. "We want to relieve any fears of people in the community," said Ballinger. He said it is standard procedure for environmental regulators to ask companies to report their own pollution.
MDE officials said that by the end of the year, they plan to issue the state's first "comprehensive regulations" on coal ash waste. The agency may start requiring more testing of groundwater, a longer list of contaminants that should be monitored and liners underneath all fly ash dumps, officials said.
Jane Barrett, director of the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, said the question of whether hazardous metals are seeping out of ash waste landfills into groundwater should be investigated statewide. "All these sites need to be looked at," she said.
What is fly ash?
Fly ash is a byproduct from the burning of coal in power plants that is caught by pollution-control devices before it flies out of the smokestacks.
The ash can contain metals found in coal, including mercury and lead, which can cause brain damage in young children, as well as arsenic and chromium, which can cause cancer.
Fly ash is often combined with other waste ash from the coal-burning plants and dumped into landfills, where rain washes over it, sometimes causing it to leach into underground water supplies and streams nearby.