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Little change seen in MD from coal ash disposal rules

Little change seen in MD from coal ash disposal rules
Coal ash is dropped from a truck, as some of the waste material from power plants gets used in the reclamation of coal mines in Western Maryland. (Doug Kapustin, 2009)

Disposal of contaminant-laced ash from coal-burning power plants appears unlikely to change much in Maryland under long-awaited new federal regulations announced Friday, a state environmental regulator said.

Horacio Tablada, land management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said that coal-ash rules unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency after years of study largely track restrictions the state adopted in 2008.

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The EPA laid out safeguards intended to protect communities from coal-ash impoundment failures, like the catastrophic spill in Kingston, Tenn. six years ago.  The agency also set requirements meant to prevent ground-water contamination and air emissions from coal-ash disposal, either in landfills or impoundments.

The federal rules, which take effect in July, drew praise from industry groups, which had argued that coal ash can be safely disposed of in the same kinds of landfills that now take municipal garbage.  Environmentalists, however, had argued that because of arsenic and other toxic contaminants in coal ash that it ought to be treated more like a hazardous waste. Activists criticized the EPA rules as weak.

While EPA has been studying what to do with coal ash since 2000, Maryland acted on its own in 2008 after dozens of household wells in the Gambrills area became contaminated by Constellation Energy power-plant ash dumped in an old, unlined sand and gravel pit there.  The company was fined $1 million by the state and agreed to pay $45 million to settle a lawsuit brought by residents.

The state now requires new or expanding landfills taking ash to have thick plastic liners under them to prevent ground-water contamination, along with systems for collecting polluted liquid from leaking out of the ground. Monitoring wells also must be placed around the dumps to guard against any possible spread of contaminants.

Tablada said the federal rules may be somewhat stricter than state requirements on ground-water monitoring and cleanup of contamination. State regulations may need to be adjusted to conform in places, he said.

Power plants in Maryland generated 1.8 million tons of "coal combustion byproducts" in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. Eighty-one percent of that gets used in making cement, wallboard and other "beneficial" products.  Some also gets used in reclaiming surface coal mines in western Maryland. The remaining 19 percent gets landfilled, with a third of that being disposed of out of state.

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