The O'Malley administration has issued proposed regulations meant to stop the leaking of acidic waste and toxic metals from coal ash dumps.
Maryland's eight coal-fired power plants each year produce about 2 million tons of ash, which is caught in filters and then buried in a half-dozen landfills, some of which leak.
The new rules, released yesterday, would require that all new ash dumps have liners and runoff collection systems so rain can't wash pollutants into underground streams.
The Maryland Department of the Environment decided to draft the rules - the state's first for ash dumps - after activists raised alarms about a landfill in Gambrills that released carcinogenic metals including arsenic into the drinking wells of 23 homes.
"We are proposing to address some current deficiencies in our regulations," said assistant MDE secretary Steve Pattison. "We want to prevent any similar situations in the future [and] ... protect Maryland's water resources."
The regulations also would mandate the reporting of all ash that is dumped and the installation of rings of groundwater monitoring wells around new dumps. The wells would test for pollutants and alert the state if any nearby homes are threatened with contaminated well water.
The proposed rules will be reviewed by a legislative advisory committee, published on Dec. 21 and then discussed at a public hearing at 10 a.m. Feb. 5 at MDE headquarters in Baltimore. The agency will issue final rules after that.
On Oct. 1, the MDE imposed a $1 million fine on Baltimore-based Constellation Energy and the contractor running that Anne Arundel County dump. More recently, the state agency asked the Atlanta-based Mirant power company to check the drinking water of Charles County residents living around an ash landfill in Faulkner that has been leaking acidic water for years.
Christopher L. Rowe, a toxicologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, praised the state's decision to start regulating waste ash as "tremendously progressive."
"This is better than a lot of other states are doing, and we totally lack federal regulations," said Rowe, who has studied ash landfill pollution nationally. "With our growing dependence on coal, there is an ever-increasing amount of risk that these contaminants will get out into the environment."
For decades in Maryland and many other states, power companies have faced little government oversight as they've dumped billions of tons of waste ash into pits.
Some of this power plant waste is called fly ash because filters catch the fine particles as they fly out of smokestacks. The ash often is laden with toxic metals such as mercury, which can cause brain damage in children, and chromium, which can cause cancer, as well as other pollutants, studies show.
Contamination of streams, underground water supplies and drinking wells happens when rain washes through the ash dumps, flushing contaminants into the environment.
The regulations are expected to cost power companies in Maryland $9.7 million a year as they build about 12 acres of landfill a year with liners and monitoring wells. The state would have to spend about $593,000 a year to hire a dozen workers to perform inspections and review ground water monitoring data, officials said.
Representatives for Constellation and Mirant said yesterday that they wouldn't comment on the regulations until they review them.
Brad Heavner, executive director of Environment Maryland, an advocacy group that helped to expose the Gambrills pollution, said the state should have imposed the rules 12 years ago, before Constellation started dumping into the unlined gravel mine in Anne Arundel County.
"The way we've been doing this in the past, we might as well inject these contaminants into people's drinking water," Heavner said. "Now at least the landfills will be using modern engineering."
Fly ash rules
Regulations proposed by the O'Malley administration would require that all new ash dumps:
Have liners and runoff collection systems so rain can't wash pollutants into groundwater
File reports with the state of all ash that is dumped
Install groundwater monitoring wells to test for pollutants