New Rules on Coal Ash Will Leave a Giant Loophole for Dumping Waste In Unprotected Mines

Illinois will remain vulnerable to water contamination.

May 10, 2010

CONTACTS: Traci Barkley, Prairie Rivers Network, 217/344-2371
Kathy Andria, American Bottom Conservancy, 618/213-6906

Champaign — On Tuesday, May 4, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released long-awaited proposed national regulations for the storage and disposal of coal combustion waste (often called coal ash), the byproduct of coal-fired power plants. The agency presented two options with vastly differing approaches to handling the 4.4 million tons of coal ash that is generated each year in Illinois. Recent USEPA reports indicate that coal waste leaches hazardous pollution in much greater quantities than had been recognized previously, contributing to over 100 documented contamination sites nationwide, several of which are in Illinois.

But another big concern for Illinois is the giant loophole left in the rules that will allow the coal industry to dump toxic coal ash in under-regulated and unprotected mines.

“Dumping of harmful coal ash at nearly two-thirds of the mines studied*, has resulted in severe, long-term water contamination problems that are much greater than the pollution that existed at these sites from mining alone,” said Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. “Even worse, once a problem is discovered, removal of coal ash from contaminated groundwater is nearly impossible.” (*Waste Deep: A 2010 Report by Earthjustice)

Minefills, as these dumps are called, are the final destination of nearly twenty percent of all coal ash generated. EPA intends to address the management of coal ash in minefills in a separate regulatory action headed by the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM). No timeframe has been mentioned for when that rule-making would be initiated. Until such action occurs, minefills will continue to be allowed, polluting more mines, both active and abandoned across the state.

“Peabody plans to dump 60 million tons of coal combustion waste from its Prairie State coal-fired power plant near Marissa into two old coal mines,” said Kathy Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy. “The coal ash piles would be piled over a total of 1,770 acres and could reach as high as 160 feet.”

Dale Wojtkowski, who lives within two miles of the Prairie State power plant, is concerned about the proposed ash piles and what could happen to his family and community should a disaster occur. “I am also worried about the potential for contaminating both surface and groundwater,” he said. “There are people on wells and farmers who water their livestock from creeks that run alongside the proposed ash piles. If the waste was disposed of properly, the electricity created by burning coal would not be so cheap and alternative energies would be more competitive.”

The coal ash generated from non-electric producing industries such as soybean processing facilities, cement manufacturers, paper or steel mills is not addressed by the proposed regulations, even though this waste is as toxic as that from electricity generation. This waste will remain under-regulated and held to much lower standards.

Andria added: “We in the American Bottom floodplain of the Mississippi River have both power plant coal ash and coal ash from steel mills. Because our levees are structurally unsound, we live with the fear of what could happen if all that waste is mixed with floodwaters.”

EPA proposed two options to regulate coal ash storage and disposal in landfills and ash ponds. One proposal would defer to the states, allowing coal ash to be handled according to performance standards set by EPA that are only enforceable through citizen lawsuits. The second option would require control and tracking of the 140 tons of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead-laden ash generated each year nationwide, and would require cleanup of existing polluting facilities.

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