State approves coal ash landfill in South Baltimore

State environmental officials approved new coal-ash landfill in southeast Baltimore Tuesday, saying "state-of-the-art" pollution controls there should allay nearby residents' fears that the power plant waste will blow into their neighborhoods and leak into the Patapsco River.

After more than a year of deliberation, the Maryland Department of the Environment authorized the disposal of up to 650,000 tons of ash in a specially prepared section of a chemical company landfill at Hawkins Point. Robert M. Summers, the agency's acting secretary, said in a statement that two-year-old regulations for new ash landfills should prevent any harm to public health or the environment.

The ash landfill, to be operated by Millennium Inorganic Chemicals, is the first new disposal site for power plant waste to be approved in the state since 2007. That's when officials discovered that some Gambrills residents' wells had been contaminated with toxic chemicals from ash that Constellation Energy had been dumping in old quarries in the area. The company paid a $1 million fine to the state and reached a $54 million out-of-court settlement with residents.

Constellation Energy plans to dispose of 200,000 tons of ash on the 65-acre Hawkins Point tract from its three Baltimore area coal-burning power plants: Brandon Shores, C.P. Crane and H.A. Wagner.

Under state rules adopted in the wake of the Gambrills problem, the new landfill will be required to have a thick plastic liner to keep contaminants from seeping into ground water, and wells to monitor and detect any contamination before it can spread. The facility also will have to collect and treat any rain water that may leach pollutants out of the ground.

But residents, environmentalists and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold all had voiced concerns about ash blowing from the landfill, which could rise more than 200 feet from sea level, and had urged the state to delay its decision until a federal review of ash disposal safety was completed. The Environmental Protection Agency has been weighing tightening federal regulations governing coal-burning waste since a massive spill of coal ash sludge in Tennessee in December 2009.

Activists have called on the EPA to declare coal ash a hazardous waste because it can contain toxic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. The EPA has yet to complete its review, though, and recently announced it would take more time.

Maryland officials say the state's ash disposal rules are the toughest in the nation, and the ash must be wetted down and covered each day to prevent it from becoming airborne. If the EPA decides to declare coal ash hazardous waste, requiring more secure disposal, state officials say the new landfill will be required to comply.

Constellation spokesman Kevin Thornton said the company believes waste generated by its local power plants ought to be dealt with locally, rather than shipped elsewhere. The company converts 60 percent of its coal combustion waste into gypsum and other building products, but the other 40 percent must be disposed of.

Constellation has been paying $1 million a year since 2007 to haul its ash to lined landfills in Virginia and western Maryland. The company will comply with all state and federal rules, Thornton said, and intends to plant trees along Fort Armistead Road to shield the waste mound from motorists' view.

Leopold called the state's decision "disappointing but not unexpected." Leopold, who testified at three public hearings about concerns over the health and environmental impacts of airborne ash, said he believed the state should have waited until the EPA had finished its review and until the state had adopted its own regulations on airborne ash.

"I think the state should have at least waited until the state regulations were in place," he said. "The EPA has dragged its feet for years on this issue. And MDE, their failure was one of omission. They knew about the carcinogens for years and did nothing to protect public health."

Anne Arundel County has banned fly ash in the county since 2007, and on Monday night the County Council voted to extend the ban for another year.

Anyone opposed to the permit has until Feb. 11 to challenge it in court, but Leopold said the county likely won't appeal.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

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