Toxic Power Plant Waste Fouling U.S. Waters

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2004 (ENS) - The federal government should take immediate action to ban the dumping of power plant waste into areas where it can come into direct contact with groundwater and surface water, environmentalists said Monday.

A petition signed by 125 national and local environmental groups urges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prohibit the practice until federally enforceable regulations are developed.

U.S. coal fired power plants annually produce more than 130 million tons of waste - composed of fly ash, bottom ash, and air emission scrubber sludge, as well as boiler cleaning wastes, waste coal, and coal pile runoff.

These wastes contain a slew of toxic contaminants, including arsenic, mercury, chromium VI, lead, selenium and boron.

But the federal government does not consider the waste hazardous and leaves regulation up to the states.

Although some of the material is recycled for other uses, the EPA estimates that about half the coal burning power plants in the United States dump their wastes in surface impoundments or ponds, many of which are not lined to keep pollution from flowing into groundwater or into rivers and ponds.

In May 2000 the EPA acknowledged risks from the waste to human health and the environment and committed to developing federal regulations for the waste.

Coal fired power plants are responsible for the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States. But the federal environmental agency has yet to propose draft rules, and the petitioners say this has left management of the waste covered by a patchwork of inconsistent, inadequate and often poorly enforced state regulations. pond

A dredge excavates fly and bottom ash from a power plant settling pond. (Photo courtesy IMS Dredges)
"The indiscriminate dumping of power plant wastes is a growing national problem that has been ignored by state and federal regulatory agencies," said Dr. Dante Picciano, leader of the grassroots group Army for a Clean Environment in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania.

The petitioners also include the Citizens Coal Council, Clean Water Action, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

The groups praised the EPA for its plan to hold public hearings on power plant waste this spring in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Texas, but say dumping the waste in direct contact with water requires immediate action before more water is contaminated.

Industry representatives said a similar petition was rejected by the Clinton administration and contend the existing regulatory regime protects public health and the environment.

Adopting such a ban could make environmental matters worse, according to Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. Segal noted that coal ash is successfully reused to neutralize the effects of acid runoff in Pennsylvania coal mines at more than 100 sites.

"Today's petition appears to ask for these environmental benefits to end," Segal said. "We believe that result is inconsistent with the need for resource conservation and recovery so clear under federal law."

Last week a Pennsylvania state legislative committee recommended against a statewide ban on using fly ash in mine reclamation projects.

The committee praised the state's oversight of the practice and said that proper use of the mining waste has important economic and environmental benefits. It called for strict monitoring of the effects on soils and waters but said a moratorium would cause unnecessary harm to the state's economy.

"The petition cites out of date practices, and mischaracterizes both the wastes and the sites where such wastes occur," Segal said. "The petition also fails to note that waste disposal is regulated and additional regulations are on the way." coalash

Environmentalists say new regulations are needed to keep power plant waste out of ground and surface water. (Photo courtesy U.S. Energy Department)
But the petitioners point to data from the EPA that reveals more than 70 cases in 23 states where hazardous constituents from power plant waste have contaminated drinking water, groundwater or surface water.

These cases represent only a small percentage of the total number of contamination cases, environmentalists say, because most power plant waste dump sites are not properly inspected or monitored.

The request for a national moratorium comes four weeks after a lawsuit was filed against a local utility by community members in Town of Pines, Indiana, whose drinking water was contaminated by power plant waste dumped into groundwater. The community has been classified as a Superfund site.

The problem of where to put the waste is likely to grow. Coal burning power plants generate half the nation's electricity and the United States has a 250 year supply of coal.

If air emissions from coal fired power plants are more tightly regulated, toxics that would have gone up into the atmosphere will become air emission scrubber sludge, predicted to add 60 million tons annually to the waste pile.