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Is Pollution From Coal Ash a Concern?

We Energies is supplying drinking water to homes near its coal ash landfill in Oak Creek-Caledonia area

Sep. 1, 2010
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Environmental concerns about coal-fired power plants tend to center on toxins in air emissions and the plants’ heavy carbon footprints.

But there’s a growing awareness of possible environmental and health dangers posed by the coal ash produced by these plants.

About 70%-85% of coal ash in Wisconsin is recycled and used to create other products, like concrete and cement. The rest is sent to landfills and is regulated just like other waste products.

Yet older coal ash sites, and sites in other states, aren’t as strictly regulated.

Environmentalists claim that coal ash is a public health hazard when not disposed of properly.

“Coal ash is toxic material,” said Rosemary Wehnes of the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s got arsenic, lead, mercury and a lot of toxic substances that can cause health problems. I think the testing methods have improved quite a bit since the early days. Now, with the new testing methods, they’re realizing that this stuff is a lot worse than they had originally thought.”

A study released last week by the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice alleges that We Energies’ coal ash disposal site in the Oak Creek-Caledonia area is a source of pollutants in drinking water. The ash is coming from We Energies’ recently expanded Oak Creek coal-fired power plant.

The study calls attention to high levels of molybdenum—a naturally occurring metal that is toxic in larger doses—and boron in drinking wells in 12 wells near the coal ash site.

We Energies admits to providing 26 homes near the site with drinking water after the state implemented a molybdenum standard in 2007. The utility had agreed in 1989 to supply drinking water to residents if elevated levels of various materials were found. About 12 private wells have tested above the state standards for molybdenum, although the levels of the material fluctuate.

“We’re doing it beyond what was required per that agreement,” We Energies spokesman Barry McNulty said of the utility-supplied drinking water.

However, while We Energies is supplying drinking water, it isn’t admitting that its coal ash landfill is the source of the elevated levels of molybdenum. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is reviewing We Energies’ data, McNulty said.

“But we felt that the prudent and responsible thing to do, as per our agreement [with the neighbors] as well, would be to provide the drinking water in the meantime until a source was determined,” McNulty said.

Ann Coakley, waste and materials management director for the DNR, confirmed that the department is trying to identify the source of the molybdenum.

“We do know that We Energies conducted an investigation recently to see if the molybdenum is coming from their landfills and they concluded that it’s not coming from the ash landfills,” Coakley said. “But the department has not yet made that determination. We don’t know the source yet. We haven’t ruled out We Energies. But we are looking at what the other sources might be.”

Federal Regulations Up for Debate

We Energies’ McNulty blasted the report, arguing that it was rushed, “irresponsibly produced” and filled with inaccuracies. He argued that the environmental groups produced it to generate opposition to coal just before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) holds a hearing on federal coal ash regulations in Chicago on Sept. 16. The Sierra Club is encouraging its supporters to attend the hearing.

Currently, the EPA leaves regulation up to the states, but it’s proposing various rule changes.

“While the federal Clean Air Act has regulated air emissions, there hasn’t been something similar as far as federal regulations for the disposal of that toxic [coal ash] material,” Wehnes said. “I think that the coal industry has taken the attitude of ‘Don’t look there.’”

The agency could leave coal ash disposal regulations to the states. Or it could classify coal ash as hazardous waste, which would have to be disposed of in highly regulated landfills.

But the DNR’s Coakley said that Wisconsin lacks a hazardous waste site. In addition, Wisconsin is a national leader in what’s called the “beneficial use” of coal ash by reusing it in products such as concrete. Classifying coal ash as hazardous waste would weaken that effort, Coakley said.

“The EPA’s rules state that it could still be used in products,” Coakley said. “But people who use it in products wouldn’t be as keen on using it if it were classified as hazardous waste. We think our 70%-85% rate might not go down to nothing, but it would go way, way down. That would be unfortunate because it’s been so successfully, beneficially used in this state. We have a nationally recognized program for beneficial use.”

But Wehnes argues that labeling coal ash as hazardous waste would increase the amount that would be reused.

“Companies will try to figure out how they can reduce what they’re producing or they’ll look for other ways that they can use it,” Wehnes said.


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