The Coal Ash Question

Two years ago this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed federal standards for coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal. That proposal never went anywhere.

Yesterday—two years to the day from the EPA proposals—the U.S. House of Representatives voted to instruct the Transportation Conference Committee to keep language in the highway bill that would block the EPA from designating coal ash as hazardous waste. The language—in the form of an amendment by West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley—is included in the House’s Surface and Transportation Extension Act of 2012.

“This is definitely a timely topic,” said Emily Enderle, from Earthjustice, during a conference call addressing coal ash yesterday. “We generate enough coal ash every year to fill boxcars from the North Pole to the South Pole.”

According to the EPA, coal ash contains “a broad range of metals, including arsenic, selenium and cadmium.” The agency estimates that more than 136 million tons of coal ash—or, coal combustion residuals—are produced annually.

Power companies, which burn coal to produce electricity, store coal ash in ponds or landfills. If “scrubbers” are employed at the facility to scrub emissions, the ash is turned into a synthetic form of gypsum—flue gas desulfurized gypsum.

Currently, coal ash is unregulated at the federal level. This worries environmental groups due to the risk of the stored ash—and related metals—leeching into groundwater.

In addition to safeguarding groundwater, environmentalists point to a 2008 accident in Tennessee as a reason to regulate coal ash. In what is the largest coal ash release in U.S. history, a slurry spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant resulted in more than one billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry being released into local waterways and damaging surrounding land and homes.

Enderle said power companies should be required to enact such measures as lining containment facilities, as well as covering coal ash deposits.

“It’s a technologically easy thing to do,” she said. “No more advance than how we deal with household garbage, really.”

Florida resident Steve Johnson joined environmental advocates on yesterday’s conference call. He recently had coal ash put onto his 30 acres property as filler. Since then, the man has measured high concentrations of metals associated with the ash.

“I asked the DEP if it’s safe for my 3-year-old to live on this property,” Johnson said during the call. “She said she could not answer that question.”

Locally, Gulf Power’s Crist Plant has installed scrubbers to deal with emissions. The plant produces gypsum as a byproduct.

“That’s great, because it’s not in the air,” noted Clean Water Action’s Angelique Giraud during yesterday’s call. “But then coal companies just put it into these ponds.”

Gulf Power Spokesman Jeff Rogers said that the Crist Plant has a pond and landfill to hold fly ash, though the pond is no longer in use. He also reported that the landfill is lined.

A December 2011 report by the Environmental Integrity Project entitled Risky Business lists various plants around the country where unsafe levels of certain metals have been found in the groundwater. It lists the Crist Plant as having high levels of arsenic, cadmium, manganese and sulfate.

“Groundwater monitoring data from five sampling events from May 2008 to November 2010 show contamination from a coal ash landfill and gypsum storage areas at the Crist Power Plant in the Florida panhandle,” the report states. “Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for arsenic and cadmium were exceeded multiple times in one compliance monitoring well, MWC-4, near the landfill. Arsenic exceedances ranged from 29 to 35 ppb, (3.5 times the MCL), while cadmium was measured at 16 ppb (3.2 times the MCL). Health advisories were exceeded for manganese and sulfate. The worst sulfate concentrations were downgradient of gypsum storage areas.”

Rogers doesn’t put a lot of stock in the report.

“This is not a government group, it’s an environmental group,” he said. “It’s an anti-fossil fuel group.”

The Gulf Power spokesman said that the company was in full compliance with state and federal regulations. He said environmentalists’ concerns regarding the lack of regulations should be directed at lawmakers.

The Southern Company—Gulf Power’s parent company—reports that 30 percent of its coal combustion byproducts are sold for reuse. The company’s scrubber-derived gypsum is used in “a number of beneficial uses, such as in wallboard, cement and agriculture.”

Eathjustice’s Enderle said she would like to see federal regulators address the safety of using coal byproducts in such ways.

“That’s something we’d like the EPA to come out with,” she said.

In its 2010 proposed regulations, the EPA did not aim to address the secondary market for coal byproducts. The “beneficially used CCRs,” or Coal Combustion Residuals are exempt from any hazardous waste regulations.

The U.S. House vote yesterday to bar regulation of coal byproducts may be largely symbolic, as the transportation bill it’s attached to is becoming a bleaker prospect by the day. The house bill contains controversial aspects—most notably, the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline—which is expected to be blocked by the Senate, or vetoed by President Barack Obama. House Republicans have indicated that a stalemate is likely, which would most likely mean an extension of current highway funding by June 30.

A majority of the U.S. representatives from Florida favor the coal-ash amendment. While a half dozen Florida Democrats voted against the language, most of the state’s 25 representatives voted for it. Three of the state’s U.S. representatives—Jeff Miller, Connie Mack and Daniel Webster, all Republicans—did not vote on the matter.