Proposal would restrict disposal of coal fly ash

Officials say it would 'cripple' coal industry


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A federal proposal that would impose tough new controls on coal fly ash disposal was endorsed by environmentalists and people living near ash impoundments at a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

But industry and power plant officials said the regulation is unnecessary and burdensome.

Marty Leedy, of Columbus, Ohio-based American Electric Power, said the proposal to label fly ash a "special waste" but treat it as a hazardous waste under federal law amounts to "regulatory overkill." Such a rule change will "cripple" the industry, stigmatize reuse of coal ash in construction materials, kill jobs, raise construction costs and raise customer rates, he said.

However, Jeremy Ulery testified that state regulators aren't properly overseeing a coal refuse site in his hometown of La Belle, Fayette County, that he said is polluting the community with fly ash and causing health problems for residents.

"We live in an old coal town, but we're human and entitled to protections we're not getting," said Mr. Ulery, one of 160 scheduled speakers at the day-long hearing. "The state isn't paying enough attention. We need federal controls."

The EPA is proposing to federally regulate coal ash for the first time in response to risks to groundwater and drinking water supplies from toxics leaching from impoundments and dry landfills and recent structural failures. In 2008, the collapse of a Tennessee Valley Authority ash impoundment near Kingston, Tenn., flooded more than 300 acres of land with coal ash slurry and flowed into the Emory and Clinch rivers.

The EPA will select one of two rule proposals. One, Subtitle C, would designate coal fly ash as a "special waste" but regulate it under federal hazardous waste rules, phase out use of existing wet slurry impoundments and ensure the structural integrity of the impoundments through increased inspection and monitoring. The second proposal, under Subtitle D of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, would regulate fly ash as a non-hazardous waste and provides for no federal enforcement. It would be enforced through citizen lawsuits.

Jim Roewer, executive director of the Edison Electric Institute's Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, said issues such as groundwater monitoring and contamination, impoundment liners to prevent seepage, dam safety standards and inspections can all be addressed under Subtitle D.

"That would not raise the costs of the electricity generators and the public will be protected," Mr. Roewer said. "Subtitle C is most burdensome and that costly regulation is not warranted."

But Lisa Widawsky, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said the electric power industry can handle the increased costs, which have been estimated by the EPA at $1.4 billion the first year and $23 billion overall. She said one electric company, FirstEnergy, had revenues of $13 billion last year.

Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club conservation director, said 20 states don't regulate coal ash at all, and there is little monitoring or enforcement in many others.

"Where it's been studied they've found contamination in drinking water," she said. "That's why it's important to put in the strongest protections."

Coal fly ash is produced when coal is burned at electric power plants and is disposed of as a liquid slurry in dammed impoundments or in landfills if the ash is dry. The nation's power plants produce approximately 150 million tons of ash a year, an amount expected to increase as more power plants are required to install more pollution control equipment that removes contaminants from emissions and adds them to the ash.

Douglas Biden, president of the Electric Power Generation Association, a Harrisburg lobbying group representing the state's electric companies, said Pennsylvania utilities generate 20 million tons of fly ash a year and beneficially reuse from 40 to 60 percent, the higher percentage when the economy is good.

The ash is used to make wallboard, concrete and roofing shingles, for road and trail construction, as abandoned mine and quarry fill, and in agricultural fertilizer and feed. Industry officials argue that so-called "beneficial use" would be jeopardized if the ash is designated a "special waste" and regulated as a hazardous waste.

But concerns have been raised about sometimes high concentrations of toxic heavy metals -- arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium, selenium and lead -- in the ash.

A 2009 EPA study of leachate water from a fly ash disposal site found arsenic 1,800 times higher than the federal drinking water standard and three times higher than the federal hazardous waste standard, said Jamin Bogi, of the Group Against Smog and Pollution.

"GASP supports Subtitle C because it creates federally enforced regulations instead of just good advice. ... We believe that hazardous waste should be treated as hazardous waste, no matter how powerful the industry that produces it," he said.

The public hearing at the Omni William Penn Hotel was the sixth of seven EPA hearings held around the country. The last hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28 in Louisville, Ky.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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