Coal Combustion Waste

The photographer knows that it won’t come out, but Squeak insists on a picture with the sign. We are in his pickup truck, driving along the grounds of the Four Corners Power Plant in Fruitland, New Mexico. The power plant is behind us, black smoke drifting out of its six smokestacks; the pickup truck bumps along the edge of its waste disposal area, a moonscape made of what looks like cracked and flaking cement. This is fly ash, one of the principle waste products of burning coal for power. Farther ahead is a fresh lagoon, where ash from the power plant, mixed with water, will be pumped. The old area we are passing is dry; back towards the plant, four small sprayers keep a tiny portion of it too wet to be blown into the air.

Squeak directs us to our right, where we drive down a hill and park in front of a small white sign. He poses next to it, gleeful. On the sign are painted the images of beer cans and banana peels; in faded letters, it says, “No Dumping” and beneath that “Walk in Beauty.” “You gettin’ this?” he asks. Squeak Hunt is sixty-five, a tall man with gray hair, bright blue eyes, and an intense gaze. As he stands with the sign, he lets out one of his end-of-the-world laughs. Rising behind him and the little sign is a wall of fly ash twenty feet high.

Fly ash, along with other coal combustion wastes, contains metals like arsenic, boron, cadmium, and selenium, which are toxic in tiny concentrations, as well as sulfates and other pollutants. Fly ash can exhibit phs almost as high as lye, caustic enough to burn the skin on contact. It is dangerous when inhaled or ingested; when water moves through it – either from underground aquifers or from rainfall – it can pick up toxic metals and carry them to ground and surface water. Since the seventies, fly ash from the Four Corners has been deposited here, in unlined lagoons – more or less open pits – a few hundred yards from the San Juan River. A conservative estimate puts the amount of ash in the immediate area, from the Four Corners plant and the nearby San Juan Generating Station, at over 70 million tons. It covers tens of thousands of acres. On windy days, local residents told me, the ash blows up from the dry lakes in what looks like a dust storm.

 

Coal combustion wastes (CCWs) are one of the largest sources of solid waste in the United States. They are also, to the average person, one of the most invisible. Few people outside the coal or concrete industry could tell you what fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, or flue gas desulfurization gypsum are; yet 130 million tons of these byproducts are produced every year in this country, enough to fill one million rail cars or the Grand Canyon. In 1980, CCWs were granted an exemption to the rules governing hazardous wastes, and since then there have been no federal regulations for their disposal. The view promulgated by industry – that these substances are as harmless as the soil in your backyard – has prevailed with lawmakers and, to a large extent, with regulatory officials as well. Millions and millions of tons of CCWs have been dumped across the country anywhere there is a coal-fired power plant nearby, frequently in unlined landfills or lagoons with little monitoring of the local water. Once in the ground, these wastes can leach toxic metals for centuries. With a few exceptions, this issue has been given little attention by large environmental groups, overlooked in the larger fights over global warming and air pollution. But a few scientists and activists have not let the issue drop, and are still fighting for tougher regulations; and in a few places in the country, local citizens, confronted with a massive dump in their backyard, have raised the issue out of obscurity.

 

I.

 

Coal combustion wastes include a number of materials which vary in composition depending on what exactly has been burned and which can have a number of different names depending on who’s doing the naming: the terms coal combustion products, coal combustion byproducts, coal utilization byproducts, and coal combustion residues can all refer to the same substances. When coal is burnt for power, CCWs are what’s left: materials that don’t burn or were captured by pollution control devices in the plant. In typical power plants, pulverized coal is blown into a furnace where it burns and the resulting heat boils water, which turns into steam and turns a turbine, producing electricity. Coarse particles – known as bottom ash and boiler slag – settle to the bottom of the combustion chamber; fine particles, called fly ash, are captured in electrostatic precipitators or other gas-scrubbing systems. The majority of the remaining waste is byproducts from removing sulfur from the gas leaving the stacks, a process called flue-gas desulfurisation. Fly ash makes up by far the largest quantity, on average about seventy percent.

CCWs can be dangerous for a number of reasons. In the short term, water passing through fly ash picks up certain readily dissolvable substances, most notably sulfates. Sulfates are not usually considered toxic, but they can reach such high levels near fly ash dumps to render water undrinkable for years. An even more serious danger of CCWs is their concentrations of toxic metals like arsenic, boron, and cadmium, which can be dangerous at very low concentrations. These contaminants can can cause an array of serious health problems, including cancer, stomach, liver, intestine, and kidney problems, miscarriage, birth defects, and brain damage. These metals, which occur naturally in tiny amounts all over the earth, were first concentrated in the coal itself as it formed out of organic matter over millions of years. They are then concentrated further when the coal is burnt, and they are not. As fly ash is collected after coal burning, these metals and other pollutants cool and condense on the surface of the tiny spheres of ash particles, becoming part of the particle’s coating, which can then leach or dissolve when in contact with water. Laws that require pollutants such as mercury to be removed from air emissions mean they simply become solid waste instead, and can make CCWs that much more toxic.

Before the environmental laws of the seventies, fly ash used to be allowed to do just that: fly out of smokestacks, where it was dispersed over hundreds or thousands of miles. But the Clean Air Act forced ash to be collected. Utilities, knowing strict regulations could be expensive, formed the Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group to lobby against them. In 1980, fly ash, along with other coal combustion wastes, was exempted from regulation as hazardous waste in an amendment to the federal laws governing industrial waste, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), known as the Bevill Amendment. The Bevill Amendment, named after its house sponsor, Tom Bevill, also exempted other large-volume wastes which industry argued would be too costly to be landfilled according to strict regulations. For coal combustion waste, the law was billed as a temporary measure – it granted these wastes exemption from hazardous status, but ordered EPA to perform a study on their safety and then to make a final regulatory determination.

This task took EPA twenty years. The agency missed two deadlines to make its regulatory determination. Then, in 1991, it was sued by an Oregon Citizens group for this failure, and in 1993, it issued a nonhazardous determination for certain CCWs, those not comanaged with other wastes. In practice, most CCWs are comanaged; EPA asked for more time to research these remaining wastes. Finally, in 1999, it issued a report to Congress addressing the risks from the remaining wastes.

The report downplayed risks from CCWs. Arsenic, it admitted, was a risk to those living near a disposal site, and in one type of site, surface impoundments, heavy metals could often be present at levels that would harm wildlife. Still, the study concluded that CCWs “generally present a low inherent toxicity, are seldom characteristically hazardous, and generally do not present a risk to human health and the environment.” It went on, “Current management practices and trends and existing state and federal authorities appear adequate for protection of human health and the environment.” It tentatively recommended that CCWs be classified as non-hazardous.

After the Report to Congress, many people, both in industry and environmental groups, assumed that EPA’s subsequent regulatory determination for CCWs would be open-and-shut. But a few scientists and environmental groups made a major effort to convince Congress and EPA that CCWs were not as benign as the report suggested. Jeff Stant, a geologist who has been studying CCWs for more than twenty years, was one of the scientists to raise the alarm to EPA. The basic flaw in EPA’s study, he told me, is that it was based entirely on laboratory leach tests. In these tests, a handful of fly ash is placed in a container in contact with deionized water for up to forty-eight hours. The water is then tested to determine the amounts of metals that have leached out in that time. One problem with these tests, says Paul Davis, a geologist who has studied fly ash deposits in Four Corners, is that they are far too short. It can take years for some metals to start leaching out of ash. Fly ash particles are in fact glass, Davis points out – water flowing through the ash in a lab test “is as likely to dissolve the glass flask as the fly ash.” A more general problem, say other geologists, is that simple leach tests can never account for all the variables and conditions that will be present in the real environment where the ash is going. “There’s not been a lab leach test done yet that has accurately predicted what these wastes do in the actual environment,” Stant says. “There’s nobody in EPA’s science advisory board or in academia today…that will tell you that lab leach tests are good predictors for what they’ll do in the environment.” Chuck Norris, a geologist based in Denver who has done extensive research into coal waste, agreed that there was little genuine debate about the adequacy of these tests. “Time and again, the leachate formed [from coal ash] can be orders of magnitude greater than what leachate test would predict.” The National Academy of Science, in a 2006 report on minefilling using CCWs, notes, “The limitations of single-point batch tests are well recognized, although they remain in widespread use and have a major role in the regulation of CCR mine placement in many states.” It mentions research which compared lab leaching tests with field behavior at CCW disposal sites. “The agreement between the field data and the leaching test protocols was variable,” the report states mildly. Indeed: some trace element concentrations “showed variations of more than two orders of magnitude between the laboratory and field leaching data.”

 

There is evidence that EPA’s 1999 report was also flawed by its reliance on poor computer models used to assess risk. Norris and others conducted a study of these models, and found that often, in Norris’s words, “Their results bear no relationship to what’s going to be happening out there in the field.” A 2004 report by the EPA supported this conclusion and proposed a new modeling system for dealing with solid wastes like CCWs, called 3MRA. A revised risk assessment for CCWs using this model was recently completed. It has yet to be made available to the public, but Earthjustice, an environmental group, obtained excerpts from it: the report found that people living near CCW surface impoundments assume risks that exceed EPA cancer thresholds by 1000 times or more. It estimates that the excess cancer risk for adults and children drinking groundwater contaminated with arsenic from CCW surface impoundments can be as high as 1 in 100 – 10,000 times higher than EPA’s regulatory goal for reducing cancer risks.

 

The only way to really know what happens to the metals in fly ash when they’re in the ground is to go to the field and test the groundwater downgradient (in the direction of water flow) from disposal sites, as well as the water in the disposal sites itself, which is sometimes deposited directly into lakes and other environments and can also run off into surface water nearby. During EPA’s 2000 determination process, environmental advocates pointed to numerous studies where this had been done and where, indeed, significant water degradation had been found. Among these was one performed for the Hoosier Environmental Council, an Indiana-based environmental group, by Dr. Donald Cherry, a professor of zoology and aquatic ecotoxicology at Virginia Tech. The study, “Review of the Global Adverse Environmental Impacts to Ground Water and Aquatic Ecosystems from Coal Combustion Wastes,” is one of the most comprehensive reviews ever done on the environmental impacts of CCWs. It evaluated the level of toxicity from CCW contamination at thirty-two sites as well as the ecological impacts from studies of CCWs at freshwater, saltwater, and coastal aquatic environments, looking at studies from more than twenty states. The review revealed high levels of contamination and ecological damage from CCWs. “Pollutants were found in ground water downgradient from disposal sites at grossly high concentrations,” it stated. “Toxic trace metal concentrations in ground water and settling pond effluent at ash disposal sites were an astonishing problem at a number of sites.” The numbers are alarming: sulfate levels in groundwater exceeded EPA maximums by more than 120 times in North Dakota and Indiana; aluminum in downgradient groundwater exceeded water quality limits by more than 700 times in sites in New York and Alabama; cadmium concentrations in downgradient water near a fly ash landfill site in Wisconson exceeded limits by more than a thousand times; the list goes on for many other contaminants.

Cherry noted that the long-term impacts of CCW contamination on human health are unknown. But the study cites a number of documented damages to ecosystems from fly ash disposal, including “insidious, chronic toxicity impacts from CCW on aquatic life” from relatively low concentrations of metals, which can accumulate up the food chain from algae to insects to fish. Several studies on Belews Lake, North Carolina, into which a local power plant had been discharging slurried fly ash, found that “concentrations of 10 mg/L of selenium in the water eliminated 16 of the 20 fish species found in this reservoir and rendered two of the remaining species sterile. Selenium concentrations had bioacumulated by 3,975 times in the tissues of largemouth bass from the levels of selenium in the water and tissues of prey consumed by this species.” One of these studies, by Dr. A. Denis Lemley, then with the US Forest Service, includes photographs showing an array of grotesque deformities in a number of different fish species, most strikingly curvature of the spine, which causes poisoned fish to be S-shaped.

On the basis of Cherry’s report and similar ones, then-EPA head Carol Browner did not follow the recommendations of the 1999 EPA Report to Congress, but instead, to the surprise of industry, state regulators, and environmental groups as well, issued a tentative determination on March 5, 2000, listing CCWs as “Contingent Hazardous Wastes” under subtitle C of RCRA. This draft determination would have left specific rules to be decided, but would essentially have been a “soft C” ruling: CCWs would be considered hazardous, but would not have had to be regulated as strictly as other C substances like commercial hazardous waste. The ruling was an internal document, but for a brief time it was on Federal Register and on the EPA’s website, and was published in Inside EPA, an agency newsletter. In Stant’s words, “That’s when the shit hit the fan.” The ruling was seen by industry as a stab in the back, rolling back years of work to limit regulations on CCWs. Besides adding almost one billion dollars a year directly in environmental costs, industry was afraid the stigma of a “hazardous” ruling would harm the trade in coal ash, a multi-billion-dollar industry that in fact often puts CCWs to perfectly safe uses. At a presentation given in the spring of 2000 by Steven J. Groseclose, a lawyer USWAG, stated this concisely:The ‘hazardous waste’ label would cripple efforts to expand the beneficial reuse of coal combustion products in numerous applications, including mine reclamation… The exact shape of those rules is irrelevant… If EPA were to adopt a negative determination, the message received by regulators and the marketplace would reduce to this: Fossil fuel combustion wastes are so dangerous that EPA wants to regulate them under RCRA Subtitle C. PERIOD.”

Responding to a massive lobbying effort that included USWAG, the National Mining Association, the Teamsters, and a number of other groups, over eighty members of congress, both Democratic and Republican, wrote Browner to protest the unexpected decision. Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, displaying an impressive command of the technical language involved, asked to see “the documentation on the relative environmental impacts associated with coal combustion wastes vs the benefits of utilizing these by-products for remediating acid mine drainage.” Congressman Rick Boucher of Virginia wrote, in an apparently spontaneous outpouring of concern, “I hope that you will adopt the technically sound and scientifically based recommendations of the professional staff in the Office of Solid Waste to retain State regulation of combustion waste under Subtitle D of RCRA.” Browner also received letters of opposition from the environmental agencies of at least ten states.

Sure enough, the “C” determination for CCWs did not make it past the interagency review process. On May 22, Browner signed the Phase II regulatory determination for fossil fuel combustion wastes, classifying them as non-hazardous. Environmentalists maintain that industry pressure, from the state level to the White House, was responsible for the reversal. Stant says, “It was Al Gore who screwed us in the final analysis”: Gore, who in his role as vice president had the final authority over EPA’s decision, may have determined that the C designation would be too politically costly for him. Sources in both industry and environmental groups believe the final decision may have come from Gore. Jim Roewer, Executive Director of USWAG, confirmed that USWAG had been in touch with the White House, among numerous other agencies, although he maintained that the “D” determination was based on scientific evidence rather than political pressure.

The reversal was a victory for industry and a defeat for environmentalists, but, Stant notes, the 2000 determination “had a totally different sound than the report to congress.” The report acknowledged that CCWs could pose risks to human health, admitted the risk was greater than first stated in the original Report to Congress, and recommended a national set of regulations for CCWs under subtitle D of RCRA, as solid waste. Even this has proved too much for EPA, however: its next move was to solicit from Utility Solid Waste Activities Group a voluntary plan for CCW management in lieu of regulations. In EPA’s defense, it hasn’t helped that under the Bush Administration, the budget for CCW issues has been cut substantially. Many of the scientists who were previously looking at damage cases have been laid off.

 

A non-hazardous determination under Subtitle D was the brass ring, and industry got it. What’s wrong with this permanent solution, says Norris, is the same thing that was wrong with the temporary one, the Bevill Amendment itself. The Bevill amendment, while probably driven by special interests – both Bevill and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Jennings Randolph, were from coal-mining areas; and Bevill was said to take pride in his nickname “The King of Pork” – had some justification. We could not have a mining industry if the law required all mining wastes to be landfilled according to strict regulations. But Bevill also exempts many other types of industrial waste from regulation as hazardous, some, says Norris, with justification, some “for no visible reason except to get the vote of some politician.” Some CCWs can indeed be relatively benign: Norris cited desulfurization materials, as well as some types of bottom ash, whose coarser grain sizes make them less likely to leach metals. And some uses, such as using fly ash as a substitute for Portland cement, are generally safe and conserve natural resources. Other types, such as fly ash from burning waste coal, or the sticky, asphalt-like waste from coal gasification, can be dangerous immediately and for hundreds of years afterwards; and other “beneficial uses”, like minefilling, can also cause quick and lasting harm. Under EPA’s determination, these very different wastes are all treated the same way. CCWs are non-hazardous by law, not by nature: fly ash containing high levels of leachable arsenic can be carted around in cloth-covered trucks, for example, while for a different substance with the same arsenic levels, these trucks would have to be hermetically sealed.

 

II.

 

For all the evidence that CCWs can cause serious water contamination, there are only a few documented instances where toxins from CCWs have found their way into people’s drinking water, and none where CCWs can be directly linked to health problems. There are a number of reasons for this. First, epidemiology can’t establish a connection between fly ash and disease because, while the effects of fly ash used to be distributed over hundreds of miles and millions of people, they are now often confined to areas too sparsely populated to provide a valid study sample. In these places, usually near coal power plants and sometimes other large industry as well, effects of water and soil contamination and inhalation of fly ash are hopelessly confounded by effects of other pollutants – decades of fly ash already in the ground after spewing from the stacks, mining waste and drainage, multiple kinds of air pollution. Second, because of the enormous amount of water they require for cooling, most coal power plants are built near rivers or lakes. Their wastes are landfilled or lagooned nearby, and as a result, metals leaching off them are often diluted quickly. This may result in slow and lasting contamination of a large body of water but not direct harm to drinking water. Third, and perhaps most important, most pollutants (except for sulfur) from coal wastes have no taste or odor; people drinking well water near CCW sites must rely on monitoring to tell them if their water is contaminated. In many states, this monitoring is deficient. A 2006 report by EPA and the Department of Energy found that, of seventeen states surveyed, one-third had no monitoring requirements for CCW landfills, and all but one lacked monitoring for requirements for impoundments. Not one state required quarterly groundwater monitoring for the active life of the disposal unit, the standard the geologists I spoke to cited as adequate. When monitoring is conducted, it is often done by industry itself; in addition, many of the exotic metals that can leach off CCWs are not tested for.

 

Despite all these factors, there have been documented cases where dangerous contaminants from fly ash have ended up coming out of people’s taps. The most recent is Town of Pines, Indiana. Pines is a very small town just south of Lake Michigan. The population is just 800; you can drive through it without ever knowing you’ve been there. Although most residents are blue-collar and have been there for decades, on a summer day the nearness to the lake and the Dunes National Monument give Pines the feeling of a vacation town. Rounding the bend of Route 12, this impression is abruptly erased: just past the town lines, in next-door Michigan City, the NIPSCO coal-fired power plant sits next to the water, its gigantic cooling tower looming over a street of modest homes.

Phyllis Damota, a high school teacher in nearby Laporte, had just moved to Town of Pines in April of 2000 when she decided to have her water tested because of a strange smell. “It smelled like walking into a hair salon,” she recalled. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) tested her water and found that the smell was benzene, a carcinogen. Most of Pines’ residents get their water from residential wells. IDEM then tested the wells for nearby houses and found the water contained high levels of arsenic, lead, selenium, and manganese. The source of the benzene in Damota’s water has never been found, but there was an obvious suspect for the source of the metals. For almost twenty years, NIPSCO’s Michigan City and Bailly power plants had been depositing its wastes in and around Town of Pines. Most of it – about a million tons – has gone to the Yard 520 Landfill, which is partially unlined; fly ash had also been used to construct many of the town’s roads and as fill in wet, low-lying areas. Tests have since confirmed that 520 was the source of the pollution: the landfill was excavated to a point below the water table, so water saturated the ash from underneath, as well as from rainfall from above. Groundwater flows from the landfill to residential areas, a gradient made more severe as the landfill was built up and became a mound.

The water in the home just adjacent to Yard 520 contained 118 parts per billion of arsenic; the maximum allowable level is ten parts per billion. In other wells, lead tested at thirteen times the allowable level; molybdenum, which can cause joint, liver, and kidney ailments, as high as ninety-three times allowable levels; manganese, a neurotoxin, tested at fifty times; boron, which can damage internal organs and cause miscarriage, tested at sixteen times. Brown Ditch, a creek that flows along the edge of the landfill into the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, is also contaminated.

Town residents, along with CATF and HEC, sued NIPSCO to get comprensive testing of the town’s water and provide municipal water to effected households. After seven years, almost all Town of Pines residents have been provided with water from nearby Michigan City. A number have also settled another suit with NIPSCO and Brown for loss of property value and mental stress for an undisclosed sum. Town of Pines is now a superfund site. EPA’s remedial investigation, meant to characterize the health and ecological risks of the site, is set to be completed this winter.

Almost as disturbing as the contamination in Town of Pines is the fact that, as Norris told me, “[This] was a place where nobody should have been surprised at what was found.” Norris first started researching CCWs when the Hoosier Environmental Council hired his company, Geohydro, in the mid-‘90s. They examined a number of sites in the Midwest to identify likely groundwater damage from coal ash. Yard 520 was one of those places?. “HEC told IDEM, ‘You have a problem,’” Norris said, but the state was not interested in pursuing it. Lisa Evans represented the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against NIPSCO. She discovered, as she looked through NIPSCO’s records, that the company had known since the seventies that their landfill was contaminating the local water. Among their records were stacks of reports from monitoring wells which showed dangerous levels of toxic metals on company property. The reports had been filed, as required, with IDEM, but had gone unread or ignored. As one Pines resident put it, “Somebody just plugged ‘em into a computer, and that’s where they stayed.” Evans also found internal company memos in which NIPSCO executives discussed how to conceal contamination from the town residents and how to convince IDEM not to do further testing. A NIPSCO document from 1988, for example, recommends against a move that would direct more of the Michigan City Generating Station’s fly ash to the Brown landfill. This move, the memo states, would necessitate obtaining an expanded permit – and during this process “groundwater monitoring data may be made publicly available, and the data could be interpreted to indicate environmental damage from current disposal practices.” Even if an expanded permit were granted, it might come with more monitoring requirements, and “the additional monitoring might then show an environmental impact not identified by the present program.” Although the move might save money in the short term, the memo concludes, it would be prudent to turn it down – NIPSCO needed to think about the future. A NIPSCO representative declined to comment.

Because of Pines’ tiny size, it’s impossible to determine to what extent contamination from fly ash might be responsible for any present or future illness. Residents whose families have been drinking water contaminated with huge concentrations of toxic metals for decades will just have to wonder and to hope for the best. What is clear, however, is that the appearance of benzene in Phyllis Damota’s water was a stroke of luck: if not for that hair-salon smell, Pines residents would probably still be drinking that same water today.

 

The factors that led to this situation – lax or nonexistent state regulations, poor local enforcement of those regulations, poor water monitoring, bad faith from industry – are not unique to Indiana. They are more the rule than the exception. The DOE/EPA report from 2006 indicates that, left to themselves to regulate CCW disposal, states have done a poor job. Only a third of the states surveyed required liners for surface impoundments; just over half required liners for landfills. In fact, the report points out that 30% of the total coal-fired generating capacity in the U.S. is in states “that potentially exempt CCW landfills from solid waste permitting requirements and that exclude certain CCWs from all solid waste regulation.” Chuck Norris told me, “If there aren’t other Towns of Pines yet, there will be.” Pines is probably the tip of the iceberg. Within Indiana, for example, there are currently sites very similar to Pines, where fly ash is being dumped in open gravel pits in contact with groundwater which flows toward residential wells. Since filling these unsightly pits is termed “beneficial use”, no monitoring is required. The DOE/EPA statistics on unregulated CCWs are certainly understatements, because in fact the practice of applying CCWs to “beneficial use” is widespread, and in many of these cases fly ash and other wastes are exempted from even the modest regulations a state may apply to CCWs.

 

III.

 

An increasingly popular kind of beneficial use of CCWs is as filler to reclaim abandoned mines. Pennsylvania leads the nation in this type of use. Most of the state’s vast coal resources were mined out decades ago, but the land remains scarred with huge strip mines and piles of waste coal. The old strip pits, filled with mine spoils, acidify water as it passes through – called acid mine drainage – and also leach iron and manganese. According to the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s website, there are an estimated 2,500 miles of streams polluted by acid mine drainage and 250,000 acres of unreclaimed surface mine land. The state has found a neat solution to the problems of waste coal piles and empty strip pits: waste coal is burnt for power in specialized plants using a process called fluidized bed combustion (FBC) and the resulting fly ash is used to fill up the empty mines.

 

On July 21 of 2005, an article appeared in the Shamokin News Item, a local paper in Eastern Pennsylvania, about one such project. PPL Electric Utilities, one of Pennsylvania’s largest power companies, had announced that it would begin a new mine reclamation project in Schuylkill County: over the next eight years, the company planned to deposit 500,000 cubic yards of fly ash from its Montour and Brunner Island power plants in the abandoned Locust Summit strip mine. “The beneficial use of PPL’s fly ash,” the article said, “would keep surface water from entering the contaminated mine pool, help reduce acid mine drainage at the site and eliminate a potential safety hazard associated with the high walls surrounding the pit and mine subsidences.” The Chairman of Coal Township, where the project would be located, praised PPL: “It’s a company that gives back to the community.”

Bob Gadinski read the article and thought otherwise. Gadinski is a hydrogeologist who worked for fifteen years as a supervisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Locust Summit stands just behind his house; water flowing through the abandoned strip pits discharges into the valley a few hundred yards away. When I visited him, he showed me the streams at the base of the summit that bear the telltale orange color that indicates acid mine drainage, from the iron and manganese that leach from mine spoils and are carried down by the underground flow of water. With such obvious evidence of acid mine drainage nearby, you might think Gadinski would be pleased at the proposed project, which would ostensibly improve water quality in the area, but he was not. He did not want that much fly ash near his house. “They’re trying to tell me this stuff is harmless,” he told me. “I worked with this stuff, I know what it is.”

 

Gadinski’s family, along with the others that live on his street, get their water from wells that are fed from an aquifer at the base of the hill, beneath the Locust Summit site. Concerned about the water at his home, Gadinski got a meeting with PPL representatives. He met them at Locust Pit and pointed out a man-made tunnel used to discharge water at the old mine workings which he believed flowed into the aquifer that fed his own well. When he was given access to mine maps of the area, Gadinski saw that indeed not just this tunnel but two others provided a direct pathway from the old mine workings – soon to be filled with fly ash – to his own water supply.

At the meeting with PPL, Gadinski was given leach test results from the fly ash at the Montour Generating Station. The tests showed concentrations of more than a dozen metals and minerals at well over state norms. Arsenic was over twenty times what is now the maximum allowable level. In addition, he learned that there was only one monitoring well to test the water downgradient of Locust pit, despite the complex geology of the site. Gadinski was not reassured at the meeting, and he let them know it. “They said no matter what you say, this project is not gonna be stopped” Gadinski told me. “I said we’ll see about that.”

Since then, he has been working on the issue full time. In 2005, when the Locust Pit project was proposed, Gadinski had just retired from the DEP. “All I wanted to do was fish,” he said. If you’ve ever met Gadinski, it’s difficult to picture him fishing for even one afternoon, let alone the rest of his life: before he was a hydrologist, he used to be a high-school football coach, and he has a coach’s pugnacious manner and relentless energy. While I visited him, he scrambled ahead of me up hills to show me waste sites and rattled off reams of information from his research into minefilling in this area. Gadinski has pursued a citizen’s complaint against PPL, aiming to stop the Locust Pit project, but he has also become an activist for stricter minefilling regulations since he discovered the scale of Pennsylvania’s minefilling projects and the way in which they were being carried out. In his words, “I saw they were proposing filling up every strip pit in anthracite region with fly ash.”

This is just barely an exaggeration. For more than twenty years, PA DEP has overseen placement of CCWs in active and abandoned mines; every year, more than six million tons of fly ash are deposited in mines in Pennsylvania, most of that from the burning of waste coal. Jeff Stant, who was the principal author of a study of minefilling in Pennsylvania, told me that, at conferences about minefilling that he’s been attending during that time, “the main presenters have been PA DEP staff, presenting success story after success story.” A 2003 PA DEP fact sheet sums up what has been the Department’s consistent claim: “All of the Department’s monitoring at the numerous ash reclamation sites demonstrates no harmful components leaching into the groundwater due to ash.”

Much of the PA DEP’s reassuring data regarding fly ash minefilling comes from a study done on a reclamation project at Bark Camp, an abandoned mining complex in Clearfied County. This project involved filling the abandoned mine with Delaware river dredge mixed with fly ash. It was deemed a success; a DEP report on it concluded, “The use of dredged materials, amended with alkaline activated coal ash, is found to be feasible, safe, and beneficial for use in abandoned mine reclamation.” Gadinski, as he tried to find monitoring data for minefills, did a file review a the DEP’s Williamsport office and came across the report himself. The study, he says, was “a total joke.” Not one monitoring well in the study was installed downgradient (in the direction of water flow) from the buried waste. The study, like many of those relied on by the PA DEP, was in fact conducted by the generator of the waste itself. According to Pennsylvania law, any geological report provided to DEP has to be signed by a licensed geologist; to date, no such geologist has signed off on the Bark Camp study.

Other studies of minefilling paint a less rosy picture. A report in 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences, “Managing Coal Combustion Residues in Mines”, found that, the presence of high contaminant levels in many CCR leachates may create human health and ecological concerns at or near some mine sites over the long term.” The report goes on to say that “much still remains unknown about the long-term behavior of combustion residues and their potential impacts in the mine setting,” and recommends further research into environmental behavior of “CCRs” as well as their effects on human health and on the improvement of current leaching tests; it also recommends that national guidelines for minefilling be established. Or, as Gadinski put it, “This stuff can be used for mine reclamation, but it isn’t cotton candy.”

Stant’s report, conducted for the Clean Air Task Force and released this August, is more damning. The report explicitly used the claim on PA DEP’s 2003 fact sheet as the hypothesis it set out to test; it found, Stant said, “no shred of data” to support that claim or the corollary claim that water contamination near minefills is due not to coal ash but to mine drainage. The report used DEP data collected from fifteen sites where coal combustion waste had been used to reclaim mines. It found that at ten of the fifteen sites, both surface and groundwater quality had been degraded. The litany of water contamination at the sites is familiar: at Ernest Mine, which holds 1.4 million tons of ash, lead levels were eleven times federal drinking water standards, cadmium sixteen times, arsenic fifty-three times. At the Ellengowan Knickerbocker site, lead was up to thirty-nine times higher and cadmium up to thirty-two times higher. At the Silverbrook site, sulfate, aluminum, iron, and manganese exceeded drinking water standards by multiple times.

The waste coal plants which produce most of the ash applied to “beneficial use” in Pennsylvania are themselves a somewhat dubious business. The piles of “gob” as it’s called in the West, or “colm” in the East, contain only about fifty percent coal, the rest being mine spoils and carbonaceous rock. This fuel has fewer BTUs — less energy — than actual coal. It was left as trash because at the time it was mined, it was not economical to burn for power. It still isn’t. A Time Magazine article from 2005 detailed how waste coal plants typically lose millions of dollars a year, but the industry survives — thrives, in fact — thanks to a nine-billion dollar tax credit left over from the energy crisis of the seventies that was intended to develop high-tech synthetic fuels as an alternative to foreign oil. Because waste coal must be sprayed with chemicals before it can be burned, it qualifies as “synfuel.” The provision has remained in the law thanks to millions of dollars in industry lobbying. The power plants that dot both Eastern and Western Pennsylvania exist because of this little-known law and were created in order to exploit it.

One of these plants, the soon-to-be-built Robinson Power Plant, provides an example of the extent to which, in Pennsylvania, the power of state agencies is lent to energy companies and mine owners and not those unlucky enough to be in their way. At 300 MW, Robinson Power is a small power plant. It will burn waste coal from the Champion gob pile, a massive accumulation of coal refuse in Western Pennsylvania estimated at thirty-seven million tons, as well as other refuse piles nearby. On DEP’s website, Southwest Regional Director Ken Bowman promotes the project with the department’s standard claim. “This project will…enable the reclamation of lands scarred by past mining practices,” and enable a reduction of “753,000 pounds of acid mine drainage – the most pressing environmental problem affecting water quality in southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Gob (for “garbage of bituminous”) is not good, but some people living near the site fear that what would replace it – what is expected to be the nation’s largest fly ash landfill, in addition to air emissions from the plant – would be worse. The black gob pile, half hidden in the woods, does indeed cause acid drainage. But this drainage, like much of that in Schuylkill County, is currently being successfully treated, and the streams where the treated water runs into are healthy. In its place would be deposited between sixty and eighty million tons of fly ash into unlined landfills near the power plant, creating one of the biggest CCW landfills in the country.

Cat Lodge, a resident who lives within sight of the proposed power plant, filed a lawsuit in 2004 CAT to challenge Robinson Power’s air quality permit. The case never came to court, but in the discovery process she found documents that showed PA DEP head Kathleen McGinty – along with almost every other major Pennsylvania politician – eager to rush the new power plant’s permit through in advance of an EPA deadline that would have required it to meet stricter emissions standards. In an email to McGinty, Regional Director Bowman wrote, “I called [state senator] Stout at home as you directed and briefed him on the status of the Beech Hollow AQ [air quality] review…Our goal is to get a PSD/NSR permit out by April 5 before the change in the particulate attainment designation becomes effective. Senator Stout was pleased with the Department’s efforts to move the permit review through so expeditiously.” The plant’s owner, FirstEnergy, got its permit on April 4. Six weeks after the permit was issued, FirstEnergy still hadn’t turned in a complete application or worked out much of the planning for the new plant.

In addition to speedy permitting, Robinson Power Plant received $400 million in bond financing from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Agency (PEDA), a state entity reactivated by Governor Ed Rendell to promote economic development through the energy sector. PA DEP head McGinty is a member of PEDA’s board of directors – as is Ray Bologna, the president of Robinson Power Company. Bologna is already known among Pennsylvania environmentalists for his role in one of the largest dumping schemes in state history, when 4,500 barrels of toxic waste, including benzene and formaldehyde, were dumped into a mine he owned, with the assistance of employees of his company. Between 2001 and 2006, Bologna contributed at least $20,000 to Senator Stout’s campaigns, and $21,000 to Governor Ed Rendell’s. McGinty herself has come under fire for possible conflicts of interest before: while she was Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Clinton, she also consulted for Troutman Sanders, a lobbying firm that had power companies as its clients. And since 2003, about 2.5 million in DEP grants have to gone to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, where Ms. McGinty’s husband, Karl Hausker, has worked as a consultant. The state ethics commission ruled this spring that she could not sign off on grants like this in the future.

 

Many opponents of Pennsylvania’s “mine reclamation” program think it is merely a cover for cheap dumping – another favor to well-connected power companies. And in fact a PA DEP report on coal ash from 2004 states, “Converting polluting waste coal into an energy resource could not economically occur if the FBC ash was landfilled.” Filling in old mines not only provides a cheap way for power plants to dispose of CCWs, but can be a lucrative business for the owners of abandoned mines, turning what were once liabilities into valuable assets. Besides fly ash, there are proposals to fill old strip pits with harbor sludge, cement kiln dust, lime kiln dust, and sewage sludge – most of it coming from out of state, just as much of the power produced in Pennslyvania is sold out of state. Gadinski told me, echoing the sentiments of other activists in Pennsylvania’s former coal regions, “This area is becoming the dumping grounds of the United States.”

National regulations for minefilling are set to be determined soon, by the Office of Surface Mining. Stant and others are advocating for OSM to adopt enforceable regulations as opposed to a voluntary plan. In this, as in their campaign for EPA to change its non-hazardous determination, they face an uphill battle. The main reason places like Town of Pines exist is that we depend on coal, and, as Lisa Evans put it, “With air pollution, obviously everybody breathes the air; but with solid waste, most of it is out of the way.” “Out of the way” refers to more than geography. Waste flows downwards: companies seeking to get rid of it cheaply have always sought the path of least resistance. In the ‘80s, studies showed that an area’s racial composition was the single most reliable factor in predicting the location of hazardous waste disposal sites. And similarly today, the poverty rate of people living within one mile of power plant waste facilities is twice as high as the national average, and the percentage of non-white populations within one mile is 30 percent higher. Similar poverty rates were found in counties where minefilling with CCWs is taking place.

 

Race, poverty, and geography converge at Four Corners. The area has long been thought of as an “energy sacrifice zone”, where the placement of new energy projects with their attendant pollution is justified by the fact that the area is already polluted. A third large power plant, called Desert Rock, is planned about 15 miles from Four Corners. Sarah Jane White, a Navajo who has been active in opposing the new plant, took me to the future site. To get there we drove out past the active mine, the roads lined with walls of raw earth streaked with coal. Dotting the small hills in the distance are hogans, circular huts which are sacred structures for the Navajo. Some of them are “ancient” – over eighty years old – but as the mine moves on they are destroyed. Residents are relocated and paid modest sums as compensation. Some complain that they have been given a pittance in exchange for their grazing land, but there is little legal recourse for them: the company’s claim to the land was established with contracts signed by current residents’ parents and grandparents who, for sums as low as $500 or $1,000, gave the company rights to the land for the whole life of the power plant.

The area, out of sight of telephone wires, cell phone towers, or any paved road, feels more remote than most national parks. Two residents I met, who will soon be displaced by the mine, spoke almost no English. I got my first glimpse of a jackrabbit and a fox as they darted along the side of the road. Like all deserts, it feels clean – but I had heard, from White and others, about the high rates of severe asthma in the area, as well as cancer and kidney failure, and, as the evening went on, the acrid, battery-acid smell of the power plant filled the air. Although situated this close to the Four Corners plant, some of the homes in the area still don’t have electricity.

 

IV.

 

Desert Rock is the subject of a national campaign against it which has attracted celebrity spokesmen like Robert Redford and the Indigo Girls – but local residents did not express much confidence it would succeed. They are too used to power companies getting their way. And in fact, as I visited one place after another where coal combustion waste had piled up, I found myself beginning to share the fatalistic view of many residents. Despite its significant potential to pollute, coal combustion waste may seem like a relatively small problem in these days of species extinction and climate change. But there is something striking in the way these wastes demonstrate people’s ability to shift the costs of their activities to someone else. The people in Phoenix and Albuquerque who get their energy from the power plants at Four Corners will probably never see the piles of waste they produce. The same is true of another fly ash landmark in Pennsylvania.

Before I left Pennsylvania, I got the chance to visit a plant that burns actual coal, the Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, just beside the West Virginia border. Bruce Mansfield is a monster – at 2,500 megawatts, the largest coal-fired plant east of the Mississippi and the fourth-largest consumer of coal in the country – and for over thirty years its wastes have been mixed with lime and slurried into an impoundment called Little Blue Run. If Navajo Mine in New Mexico – remote, ignored, and egregious – is the starkest monument to the decades of lax regulation of coal combustion wastes, then Little Blue is a respectable second. Until 1976, when Bruce Mansfield began pumping in slurried fly ash through a series of pipes, Little Blue was a series of hollows in the hills with creeks running through it. It now looks like a lake, or series of lakes half-hidden in the woods, liquid in places where the slurry is fresh, solid in others where it has set. In photographs of the lagoons from 2004, the water is an astonishing bright blue, like a postcard from the Bahamas. This was most likely a result of its extremely high ph. When I visited the lakes this spring, they had lost that hue and were now a dull gray. One dry, older area near the road resembled the moonscape of Navajo Mine – except here, the chalky gray ash was surrounded by wooded hillsides and provided a stark contrast to it. All around the lake was the green of early May, while the lake itself was devoid of life. Two stands of dead, bare trees rose out of the hardened ash.

It is an ominous picture. “Nothin’ll live in Little Blue,” the local activist who took me there remarked matter-of-factly. The lack of life is probably due to the fact that most of the oxygen in the water is tied up as oxides in the over twenty metals which exist in high concentrations in the lagoon. Despite being so visible in physical forms like this, CCWs remain almost invisible to public attention. Google “fly ash” and you will get pages and pages of ads for commercial applications before you see any mention of environmental risks. The Wikipedia entry for “fly ash” is a mix of technical details on concrete application and industry palaver; it was written in part by an employee of the American Coal Ash Association, the main industry lobbying group. ACAA also deleted references to environmental problems, but, even in the contentious world of Wikipedia, no environmentalist has amended the entry. A number of factors have made possible this invisibility, which in turn makes possible places like Little Blue and Navajo Mine. The most important is decades of lobbying by industry, which has benefited by our country’s dependence on cheap and plentiful coal, by lawmakers dependent on coal money and easily bored and confused by technical debate, by overworked and sometimes not disinterested regulators, and by an environmental community focused on more dramatic problems.

With continuing efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, coal, which the US has in abundance, is expected to be a major source of energy in the coming decades, and the amount of CCWs is expected to increase by forty million tons over the next ten years. With that will come more urgent need for cheap disposal and “beneficial use” – pressure will only increase to keep these wastes from being considered hazardous. The pages of coal trade magazines offer new ways of reusing and marketing CCWs, but in the near future most of them will continue to go into the ground. PA DEP recently approved an expansion to Little Blue that will allow fly ash to be deposited 62 feet above the water level. And as long as our appetite for coal continues, there will probably be other Little Blues as well.

 

by Aaron Labaree

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