39 groups protesting coal ash rule change
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Thirty-nine environmental groups are urging President-elect Barack Obama to reject a pending federal rule that will make it easier to dispose of coal combustion waste from power plants in abandoned mines despite risks of water contamination.
The groups, including eight from Pennsylvania, say coal ash has already polluted water in 23 states and the new rule would open the way for more pollution by failing to require consideration of risks to human health and the environment before new disposal sites are approved.
They say stronger regulation of the coal ash and "common sense safeguards" to prevent drinking water contamination, as recommended by a 2006 National Academy of Sciences review, is warranted.
"Disposal of coal ash in mines is a growing practice that threatens the health and environment of coalfield communities," said Lisa Graves Marcucci, president of Jefferson Action Group in Jefferson Hills, who noted that 120 abandoned mines are already used for ash disposal in Pennsylvania.
Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 129 million tons of waste ash a year, the second-largest industrial waste stream in the nation. About 25 million tons are dumped in coal mines, including 6 million tons annually in Pennsylvania.
The waste contains numerous hazardous materials including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium and molybdenum. Water pollution has resulted in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota and New Mexico.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection allows for the "beneficial use" of high alkalinity coal combustion waste in mine reclamation projects, if properly placed above the groundwater table and capped with topsoil and re-vegetated to reduce contact with rainwater.
The pending rule by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the latest in a series of controversial, end-of-term rule-making actions by the Bush administration aimed at easing environmental regulations to benefit various industries.
An example is the Dec. 12 rule issued by OSM eliminating a 100-foot buffer zone around streams and make it easier for coal mining companies, especially those engaged in "mountaintop removal" mining, to dump rocky waste in valley streams. A lawsuit challenging that rule was filed yesterday by five environmental groups in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
In a letter to Mr. Obama released by the groups from 10 states yesterday, he is asked to send the coal ash rule back to OSM and the EPA and restart the rule-making process to allow for comment by environmental groups as well as industry.
"These 11th hour rules gut consumer protection and environmental laws for the sake of special interests," the groups said in the letter. "The coalfield residents will be unfairly excluded from receiving the same basic environmental safeguards enjoyed by the rest of the country."
The OSM proposed a draft rule in March 2007 permitting the disposal of coal combustion waste in mines. It attracted almost 2,000 public comments voicing concern. In August 2007 the EPA's own assessment of ash disposal found high risks to human health and the environment from the disposal of coal ash in waste ponds and landfills.
"EPA has made no attempt to assess the threat posed by disposal of coal ash in mines but instead passed the responsibility for regulation to OSM," said Aimee Erickson, coordinator for Citizens Coal Council, a Washington County-based citizens group. "If OSM permits the dumping of coal ash in mines, it will allow the creation of illegal open dumps."
Other Pennsylvania groups signing the letter are the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution; Mountain Watershed Association in Fayette County; and four Washington County groups, the Center for Coalfield Justice, Residents Against Power Plant, Ten Mile Creek Watershed Conservancy and Ten Mile Protection Network.
First Published December 23, 2008 12:00 am