Investigators don't know what caused the dime-size hole on the pipeline leading from the coal-fired generator at the NewPage Corp. paper mill in Luke last Sunday, but the impact of that small opening for its 12 undiscovered hours was unmistakable: a discharge of roughly 4,000 gallons of dark, gritty coal ash, some of it spilling into the North Branch of the Potomac River.
The Western Maryland spill was minor compared with the 1.1 billion-gallon release of coal ash at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston, Tenn., containment facility in December that flooded 300 acres and is expected to cost more than a half-billion dollars to clean up. But the timing was noteworthy - the next morning, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced that her agency would be revising rules governing the handling and management of coal combustion byproducts.
The burning of coal leaves behind considerable residue from light fly ash to boiler slag. There are beneficial uses for some of it, but there are also serious environmental concerns that have been too long ignored by the federal government.
Chief among them is the impact of heavy metals and other potentially toxic substances on ground water supplies. Last weekend's spill in the Potomac (the pipeline is used to pump coal ash to a storage facility in West Virginia) may not be cause for great concern, but a leaking coal ash landfill discovered two years ago in Gambrills contaminated 80 residential wells with arsenic, chromium and other potentially harmful substances.
Maryland has since adopted tougher standards on such facilities, but the state Department of the Environment lacks the capacity to properly regulate these waste disposal sites because it doesn't have the money to hire anyone to do the job. That can be corrected if the General Assembly approves pending legislation that would assess a modest fee on coal ash - about 35 cents on each of the 2 million tons produced annually.
Still, the EPA's role is crucial. The agency needs to develop national standards for disposal of coal combustion byproducts that can be enforced by federal, state and local authorities. This is a problem that is only going to grow as new air pollution standards cause power plants to capture more of the coal ash before it escapes up the smokestacks.