Pennsylvania calls putting fly ash waste from coal-fired power plants into abandoned coal mines a "beneficial use," but a coalition of national environmental groups has issued a report showing the widespread practice does much more harm than good.
The report released yesterday by the Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice says at 10 of the 15 mines it examined in the state, nearby ground water and streams contained levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and other pollutants above safe standards. In addition, at six of nine mines where ash is used to treat acid mine drainage, the acid in the groundwater has increased.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has allowed coal-burning electric utility companies to dispose of ash in Pennsylvania's old surface and deep coal mines for almost 20 years, as part of a program that is a cornerstone of the state's waste disposal policy. A total of 120 abandoned mines -- more than in any other state -- have been permitted to accept the ash.
Jeff Stant, director of the Pennsylvania Mine Fill Research Project at the Clean Air Task Force, said the DEP has been lax in monitoring the long-term effects of the fly ash on surface and ground water, and ignored its own data where it exists.
"The regulators in Pennsylvania don't want to honestly assess this data," said Mr. Stant, one of the authors of the report. "We don't see the agency seriously regulating. We see it as being a booster for the co-gen industry."
Ron Ruman, a DEP spokesman, said the department has not seen the new report or any of the problems it cites at the mine sites.
"There has not been any issue where there's been a problem and water contamination has exceeded federally allowed levels," said Mr. Ruman.
The new report, which contains more than 1,000 pages of monitoring records, was released at a news conference in Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, in the anthracite coal region.
Fly ash contamination of water at the Ellengowan Mine is so toxic, the environmental groups say they are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the site under its federal Superfund authority.
"Groundwater degradation is real and it's time the state took a serious look at what its own data is showing," said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, president of the Jefferson Action Group, which has opposed fly ash disposal sites in that community. "We need national regulation of coal waste ash under federal hazardous waste laws."
The EPA in May 2000 determined that coal combustion ash is not hazardous waste. The agency has been meeting since then with the Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group, a lobbying consortium of 80 utility companies, to develop a voluntary plan for managing the waste.
Each year the nation's 450 coal-burning power plants produce more than 130 million tons of ash and dispose of it in 600 landfills and surface impoundments or lagoons, as well as in abandoned mines. That waste has contaminated ground water in at least 23 states, according to the EPA.
Pennsylvania utility companies produce more than 9.5 million tons of fly ash waste a year, more than any state but Kentucky, Texas and Indiana. About 40 percent of it is used in wallboard and cement products.
The new report was released as the EPA is seeking public comment on its own Sept. 4 assessment on coal fly ash disposal that says the greatest risk to ground and surface water comes from unlined or clay-lined landfills or disposal units and mines. More than 60 percent of the nation's coal ash disposal sites are unlined or clay lined.
Unlike hazardous waste landfills where impermeable liners are required, surface mine pits and deep mines where the fly ash is deposited are unlined, allowing surface and ground water to infiltrate the waste ash and carry off impurities.
Power plant waste used in the mine fills is actually a combination of fly ash, bottom ash and air emission scrubber sludge. Analysis of the waste has found numerous toxins, including arsenic, mercury, chromium VI, lead, selenium and boron, that can cause deformities, reproductive problems and cancers in humans.
"The DEP is replacing one problem with another, larger, long-term problem," Mr. Stant said. "It's turning our mines into dumps and then stopping monitoring of the consequences. What it's doing is playing Russian roulette with the state's water supplies."
Don Hopey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1983.