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Environmentalists Push For Coal-ash Regulation

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Sep 1 2010 (IPS) - In what promises to be a contentious, high-profile series of debates, the forces of environmental protection will be lining up against those of the electric power industry over the future status of coal-ash.

Environmentalists are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today to regulate toxic ash from coal-fired power plants as a hazardous waste. Industry spokespeople are claiming that Federal enforcement of coal- ash disposal rules would mean classifying the waste as hazardous, adding costs, and making it harder to recycle some of the waste.

Erich Pica of the advocacy group Friends of the Earth told an EPA panel that the catastrophic 5.4 million cubic yard coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008 was a graphic reminder that there are no federally enforceable standards for coal-ash.

“It’s time the EPA begin to regulate coal-ash as a toxic pollutant,” Pica said at a public hearing.

The EPA is considering adopting the first-ever federal standards for the disposal of coal-ash. Opponents of that position are pushing for coal-ash to be regulated as a nonhazardous material with enforcement remaining in the hands of individual states.

Environmental groups say the states have failed to protect the public and that the EPA should set a national standard and enforce it.

Monday’s hearing, held in Alexandria, Virginia, on the proposed federal rules is the first of seven that will be held across the country over the next month.

Scott Schlesinger of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group, one of Monday’s witnesses, wrote in his blog:

“What happens to the toxics that utilities remove from their stacks that used to pollute our skies? They now pollute our waters. During the past 30 years, the pollutants that used to go up the stack are now collected in ash. Administrations have been prodded by NRDC lawsuits to regulate these toxic wastes and have found excuses not to do so.”

He added, “Now, with new technology that better predicts the high levels of these toxics reaching groundwater, EPA has come forward with a plan to regulate coal-ash and its metal components of arsenic, mercury, lead, antimony, and other toxic metals.”

A study released last week reveals that 39 sites in 21 states where coal-fired power plants dump their coal-ash are contaminating water with toxic metals such as arsenic and other pollutants. The study reports that the problem is more extensive than previously estimated. The report shows that, even contained, stored ash can have led to water contamination and negative health impacts.

The electric power industry is lobbying to keep regulation up to individual states.

But Jeff Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project, director of the new study, contends, “This is a huge and very real public health issue for Americans. Coal-ash is putting drinking water around these sites at risk.”

Most states don’t require monitoring of drinking water near the waste sites. The study found five sites where monitoring figures were available, and all of them had some contamination. In four, tests showed problems at one or more drinking-water wells. In Joliet, Ill., where the information was too limited for analysis, at least 18 nearby wells were closed because of boron contamination, the report said.

The U.S. burns more than 1 billion tonnes of coal a year to generate about half of the nation’s electricity. It ends up with at least 125 million tonnes of coal waste, including ash and the sludge left from scrubbers that remove air pollutants.

The report from the environmental groups said that more than a third of the reused coal-ash is for structural fill or to fill up empty mines. The report said those uses could result in water contamination.

The report, by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, documents 39 additional coal-ash dumpsites in 21 states that are contaminating drinking water or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals.

Experts from those groups found that, at every one of the coal-ash dump sites equipped with groundwater monitoring wells, concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceeded federal health-based standards for drinking water – with concentrations at the Hatfield’s Ferry site in Pennsylvania reaching as high as 341 times the federal standard for arsenic.

This new report comes after a February 2010 report by Environmental Integrity and Earthjustice that documented water contamination from 31 coal- ash dump sites in 14 states. The report documents 39 additional coal-ash dump sites in 21 states that are contaminating drinking water or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals. It also adds to the nearly 70 other sites previously identified by the EPA.

Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, said: “There is no greater reason for coal-ash regulation than preventing the poisoning of our water. We now have 39 more good reasons for a national coal-ash rule. the mounting number of contaminated sites demonstrates that the states are unable or unwilling to solve this problem.”

Environmental groups want to see the Obama Administration EPA take a more aggressive stance, and choose to more closely regulate coal-ash as a hazardous waste.

Jeff Stant, director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, said: “The contamination of water supplies, threats to people, and damage to the environment documented in this report illustrate very real and dangerous harms that are prohibited by federal law but are going on in a largely unchecked fashion at today’s coal-ash dump sites. Contamination of the environment and water supplies with toxic levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals is a pervasive reality at America’s coal-ash disposal sites because states are not preventing it.”

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