Coal Ash Disaster Prompts New Scrutiny
Listen NowCoal ash is just what it sounds like: it’s the leftovers from burning coal at a power plant. LG&E’s Cane Run plant in southwest Louisville burns a million and a half tons of coal a year, leaving 150,000 tons of ash behind. The powdery “fly ash” is blended into a kind of cement and landfilled on site. The heavier “bottom ash” goes in this pond.“This is bottom ash…"Engineer Jeff Hewn stoops on the shores of this manmade pond teeming with geese. Behind him stand several modest houses, a road, and railroad tracks. He sifts some bottom ash that’s washed ashore. Most of it has settled to the bottom of the pond. At the end other end of the pond, plant manager Steven Turner points to a small gate that lets water drain continuously into the Ohio River. Millions of gallons a year pour through it to keep the pond from overflowing.“We do have kind of a trap system here, so that only water flows out through the discharge," says Turner.Turner says they monitor that outflow water for certain contaminants. But LG&E’s state permit allows a certain amount in every liter.“The resulting ash from burning coal contains trace metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, and other dangerous chemicals.”Lisa Evans is an attorney for Earth Justice. She specializes in hazardous waste law.“And it has to be handled very carefully so those chemicals don’t re-escape.”She says safety standards vary by state and by plant, so...“The problem is, is that there are no federal regulations that provide minimum standards for how this waste is disposed. So it’s up to each plant, all 600-plus coal-fired power plants in the United States, how they want to handle the waste. There are some state regs, but they tend to be very lax," says Evans.That lack of oversight caught lawmakers’ attention this month at a hearing before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Kentucky Resources Council head Tom Fitzgerald testified. In this exchange, Fitzgerald, and coal industry executive Nick Akins spar over whether the ash should be regulated like any other hazardous waste.Fitzgerald: “Fly ash, I think the evidence as we’ve gotten better at controlling air pollution, we are shifting the medium of where those metals and where the other pollutants are ending up. They’re absorbed to the particulates that we’re capturing. And I think there’s really a need to go back and visit whether under certain types of disposal and management, these should be regulated as hazardous waste.”Akins: “We do not believe it should be as a hazardous waste because obviously the EPA has looked at this several times and determined it is not a hazardous waste.That’s partly true. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that waste from coal combustion wasn’t hazardous, which means it didn’t have to be handled according to federal guidelines. But in 2007, an EPA investigation found 24 cases where coal ash had already damaged water quality and ecosystem health. The problems were mostly found in unlined ponds seeping into groundwater. More than 180 unlined ponds have been identified throughout the country. LG&E engineer Jeff Hewn says the 55-year old Cane Run plant’s pond is probably not lined either.“As far as what’s underneath the pond bottom, we’re not sure. Just knowing the natural topography, there’s clay soils and sandy soils in this area," Hewn says.That means there’s a chance that water could be seeping out. Although the groundwater here doesn’t feed the neighborhood’s drinking water supply, it does feed the region’s watershed. LG&E monitors the groundwater for contaminants, but the state doesn’t require them to. Assistant head of the Kentucky Division of Water Pete Goodman says that as far as groundwater goes, no one really has a handle on the potential impacts.“There really isn’t a groundwater permit program in the Division of Water. Actually, any injection issues on groundwater issues are handled, primacy is through EPA region 4. So, to some degree it may be falling between the regulatory cracks,” says Goodman.While congress and state legislators continue to debate how to handle coal ash and who should oversee it, Cane Run’s ash pond has almost reached capacity, and they’ll need another on-site landfill soon. Industry and environmental groups alike say the best option is to reuse the ash in products like cement. LG&E’s Steven Turner says they sell what they can.“We do utilize bottom ash in beneficial re-use projects. Some bottom ash from LG&E has been used to build the greenbelt highway," Turner says.But fly ash is a tougher sell here.“The fly ash, the market’s just not been developed in the United States. In Europe, there is regulation that requires use of these by-products.”The idea is catching on in the U.S., but not enough to keep up with the more than 130 million tons of coal ash produced here every year.