Debate smolders on coal ash safety

The Baltimore Sun

FROSTBURG -The state fined Constellation Energy $1 million for contaminating wells in Gambrills by dumping millions of tons of ash from its power plants in old gravel mines there.

But with the state's blessing, another energy company is dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of ash into active mine pits in Western Maryland. Eighteen-wheel trucks routinely deposit steaming loads of ash from the Warrior Run power plant at a hillside coal mine overlooking the hamlet of Carlos just south of here.

The difference, state officials say, is that they consider dumping ash into coal mines beneficial for Western Maryland's streams, which suffer from acidic pollution draining from mined lands. The ash from the Warrior Run plant helps prevent acid from leaching out of the rubble left behind after the coal is extracted, they say. It's also a money-saver for the power company - AES, based in Arlington, Va. - since it doesn't have to pay for costly disposal in a state-regulated landfill.

But environmental activists call the practice of filling coal mines with ash a worrisome experiment that has not proved to be environmentally safe - and they are asking for federal regulations to govern the disposal of ash, with its many harmful chemicals.

"It's waste disposal, not mine reclamation," contends Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice. "I don't know that in every circumstance it will cause harm, but we have seen it cause harm in enough mines and landfills and surface impoundments that safeguards are absolutely required."

Coal ash is the waste produced by burning coal - light fly ash collected in the smokestack, plus heavier bottom ash left after the fire has consumed the fossil fuel. The nation's power plants produce enough ash from the coal they burn to fill 1 million railroad cars a year, according to a 2006 report by the National Research Council. Maryland's coal-burning power plants produce about 2 million tons of ash a year, state officials estimate.

Nationally, most of it is deposited in landfills and man-made ponds, where there have been a number of problems. Recently, an earthen dam in Tennessee ruptured, releasing millions of tons of coal-ash sludge that destroyed homes and fouled a river.

In Maryland, in addition to the Gambrills well contamination, an ash landfill in Charles County has polluted streams feeding the Zekiah Swamp. Those problems have led to calls for stricter federal regulation of coal ash disposal, and the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, has vowed to reconsider her agency's decision to leave oversight largely to the states.

Environmentalists say similar federal attention should be paid to the growing use of coal ash in mine reclamation. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining in the Bush administration drafted regulations that environmentalists criticized as too weak, and then did not issue them. The rules are now under review.

In Maryland, 18 mines in Allegany and Garrett counties are permitted to accept coal ash, though it is not clear how many have actually received any.

State officials contend that despite the lack of federal rules, they have imposed safeguards on the decade-old practice of using the ash in mine reclamation in Western Maryland. Both mine and power plant operators have been required to take precautions to prevent stream or ground-water contamination, they say, and the ash has helped to ease the acidic pollution fouling streams, particularly from old underground mines that have long since been abandoned.

"There are some very good uses of this material when properly used," says Paul Petzrick of the power plant research program at the state Department of Natural Resources. The National Research Council agreed in a report, but its panel of independent scientists cautioned that toxic substances in coal become concentrated in the ash after it is burned. They urged enforceable federal requirements for more testing of the ash, of the mine sites and of the water leaving the mines.

Environmentalists say the state-by-state patchwork of oversight isn't enough. An environmental group's study of coal ash dumped in 15 Pennsylvania mines, for instance, found that water quality actually worsened at 10 of them. State officials there dispute the finding.

It's not clear if the ash has put harmful chemicals in Western Maryland waterways. The state has been testing mainly for evidence of acid mine drainage over the years - not for arsenic, lead, selenium and the rest of the toxic potpourri of metals and minerals found in much higher concentrations in ash than in raw coal. Those substances can cause cancer, nerve damage or other health problems for people, fish and insects.

A few months ago, prompted by the Gambrills and Charles County problems, Maryland imposed rules regulating any new landfills where coal ash would be dumped. The state also tightened oversight of ash disposal in mines, ordering more testing of nearby waterways before and as it's being placed in the ground. The tests must check for arsenic and the other toxic chemicals found in ash.

But other than more testing, mine disposal is not subject to the same safeguards as when coal ash is dumped anywhere else. Ash put in landfills must be kept away from ground water with a heavy plastic barrier, and monitoring wells must surround the site to give early warning if any contaminants leak out.

Maryland officials say that liners aren't needed in mines, because the ash is being dumped well above the water table and in relatively small amounts.

Warrior Run is depositing 370,000 tons of ash in four Allegany mines, according to an AES report to the state. That's much less than the estimated 8 million tons Constellation poured into the Gambrills gravel pits.

State regulators say monitoring wells aren't practical at mines, because they are so far above the water table. Instead, mines are required to test water seeping from springs at the base of slopes or in creeks downstream from the mine. Also, officials say, they only allow alkaline ash to be dumped in mines, so it will help neutralize acid mine drainage. Warrior Run's ash is highly alkaline because the power plant burns coal with limestone to reduce air pollution.

Environmentalists say Maryland's new coal-ash disposal regulations are better than those in many states but are still inadequate when it comes to mine disposal.

"It doesn't seem like the gap has been plugged," said Earthjustice's Evans. "We still have potential problems that can occur from this waste. It's just going to a location that is arguably more distant, and it's a little harder to tell what the impacts will be."

Neither Maryland nor most other states require sufficient testing of water for ash contaminants, contends Jeffrey Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group led by a former EPA enforcement official. State rules only require water monitoring for five years after the mine has been reclaimed. Stant said problems may not show up for a decade or more after the ash has been put in the ground.

While state officials say there hasn't been evidence of coal ash harming Western Maryland streams, others say it may not be easily discernible. Even contaminants not at levels deemed unsafe for humans can affect fish and other water-dwelling creatures.

"It's kind of subtle and insidious, because you rarely see things like fish kills," said Christopher Rowe, a toxicologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. He and other researchers have found frogs and lizards with deformities and other problems in ash-contaminated ponds in southern states. Developmental and reproductive problems might not kill creatures right away, but could affect their abundance and diversity over time.

At 400 acres, the Carlos mine operated by ICG Inc. is one of the largest surface excavations for coal in Maryland. State mine regulators and mine officials showed a reporter last week how ash is deposited in gashes in the hill from which coal has been excavated, then buried under tons of dirt and rock. The ash dumped there is gray and damp, a bit like sand - wetted down, officials say, to keep it from becoming airborne.

As the earth movers finish extracting coal from the hill, the land is restored to its original contour and replanted with trees, officials said. Rainfall running off the slope is channeled to settling ponds before draining into Staub Run, a stream that empties into George's Creek, a tributary of the Potomac.

The stream has been tested every three months for evidence of mine-related pollution, and the readings "aren't particularly high," according to Alan Hooker, chief of the state's mine permitting.

Still, Staub Run suffers from "an impaired fish and aquatic insect community" and from other evidence of suspected acid mine drainage, according to MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus. The area has been mined for decades, so it's hard to tell whether the problems are from mining occurring now or the legacy of past mining activity in the area, she said.

The new testing will help determine whether arsenic or other chemicals found in ash may be contributing to that pollution.

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