Fly ash, under fire for its reported health risks, is one of the materials slated to be used on the site of a proposed amphitheater in Hazleton.
By KENT JACKSON firstname.lastname@example.org
Electric companies and environmental groups submitted rival proposals for the disposal of fly ash to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA has been considering regulations since determining that fly ash could cause health risks in 2000, and in March 2006 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report saying fly ash contains metals, including arsenic, and other constituents that might harm health if improperly managed.
Discussions about the health risks have bearing on Hazleton, where the site of a proposed amphitheater is scheduled to be reclaimed with a mixture that includes fly ash and dredged materials. Area mine pits such as the Big Gorilla outside McAdoo have been filled with fly ash under state rules that permitted the process since 1986.
Nationally, more ash is expected because up to 150 more coal-fired plants are proposed during the next 30 years, and contaminants in the ash might increase as plants burn cleaner and leave more residue.
A group of approximately 80 utility companies suggests that its members should follow guidelines for disposing of fly ash that their plants create when producing electricity by burning coal.
But 28 environmental organizations, including two fighting fly ash disposal projects in Hazleton and Schylkill County, think the EPA should make the regulations mandatory - not voluntary.
"For these guys to trot out a voluntary plan and say take five years to require operators to put in monitoring wells and say "Gee, aren't we great corporate citizens," isn't that an outrage?" said Jeff Stant of the Clean Air Task Force, one of the environmental organizations that signed the proposed regulations.
Meanwhile, Jim Roewer, the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group that submitted the voluntary guidelines, said states already regulate the disposal of fly ash to mesh with their particular conditions.
"Think of the difference of climate and geology from Pennsylvania to Arizona," Roewer said. In Arizona, groundwater flows hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface. Sparse rainfall alleviates worry about surface water leaching through fly ash sites into the groundwater, Roewer said. Pennsylvania, he said, has more rain and shallower groundwater so the risk of contamination is greater.
"EPA decided in 2000 to develop national standards, but I believe those national standards are going to be implemented by the states," said Roewer. "Pennsylvania i often held as a model."
The EPA asked the group that Roewer directs to submit guidelines.
In October 2006, the group presented a plan by which participating companies will install monitoring wells at fly ash disposal sites, which are within two miles of wells used for drinking water.
They won't put fly ash into sand and gravel pits, which the EPA said caused water pollution in at least five instances, unless engineers design safeguards for the water supplies first. Most of the contamination occurred in old sites, the plan says, and Roewer waid the majority of new sites have liners.
Aslso, the companies will look at processes to keep fly ash dry when developing new storage facilities. Fly ash becomes more reactive when wet, yet it sometimes is stored in watery pits or disposed of as slurry.
Roewer said if EPA were to regulate fly ash as hazardous waste, some plants would close because of the cost to comply with the rules. He thinks environmentalists would like less coal to be burned, whereas his group wants to avoid adding regulations that don't provide additional protection to the public.
After seeing the utility group's plan, the environmental coalition developed a counterproposal, whose signers include Save Us From Future Environmental Risks, or SUFFER, in Hazleton and the Army for a Clean ENvironment in Tamaqua.
"The EPA never did approach us like they did industry. They approached industry five years ago," Stant of the Clean Air Task Force said.
The environmental coalition's plan says fly ash sites should have liners and leachate collection systems as landfills have.
Also, the colaition's plan bars fly ash from flood plains, wetlands, earthquake zones and says fly ash shouldn't be stored below the seasonal high mark for groundwater.
The coalition calls for water to be monitored for 30 years after the disposal sites close and says owners should post bonds to cover the costs of closing and monitoring the sites.
Arsenic leaching from fly ash disposal areas into groundwater can cause an excess cancer risk as high as 1 in 100 people, the proposal from the environmental groups says, citing a draft of an EPA document.
Stant said risks from fly ash disposal might change opinions about causes of water pollution in mine regions.
"Most of the public thinking is the mining is what trashed the water," he said adding data shows water quality can deteriorate after mines are reclaimed with fly ash.
Robert Gadinski, a hydrogeologist who assists SUFFER in opposing the reclaiming project the Hazleton amphitheater site, said he found a high level of lead in a sample of groundwater taken from the Knickerbocker ash pit in Schuylkill County.
The reading of 530 parts per billion is far greater than the EPA's action level for lead of 15 ppb; and, Gadinski said, is higher than levels found at polluted sites in the region that he studied during his career with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Knickerbocker was used as a site to demonstrate a wet-to-dry placement when the mine was filled from 1997 to 2002. Gadinski reported his finding to the DEP, which is following up, and said the high levead reading from Sept. 26, 2006 indicates contamination can develop after fly ash sites close.
Both environmentalists and utility companies realize changes in fly ash occur as the EPA requires plants to use technologies to control air pollution.
"In conjunction with their use, neverthesss, EPA must take action to ensure that the pollution reduction in power plant air emissions is not transferred to land and water via the coal ash," the environmentalists' proposal says.
Roewer said the utility group also is studying how air pollution controls change the content of fly ash and properties that allow it to be used in cement, wallboard, and roads. The National Academy of Sciences recommends putting fly ash into those secondary uses when possible rather than depositing it into fill sites.
EPA spokeswoman Roxanne Smith in Washington, D.C. said a notice that the agency is preparing on fly ash will "contain proposals from citizens and environmental groups."
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining is examining the use of fly ash as fill for mines.