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Toxic coal ash poses persistent threat to US waters

A recent spill of coal ash in North Carolina underscores the challenge of disposing hazardous substances captured from power plant stacks. Are we diverting air pollutants into our waterways?

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Wet coal ash is seen on someone’s hand next to the Dan River, which flows through North Carolina and Virginia. Duke Energy spilled 30,000 tons of it upstream.

Gerry Broome/AP

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Ben Adkins grew up on North Carolina's Dan River.

"This place was where I first knew God was real," Mr. Adkins drawls, gazing down at a narrow segment of the river known as Draper Landing. That's where he learned to fish and swim as a boy, where he first felt a spiritual connection to nature, he says. Gesturing toward his 2-year-old son, Benson, he adds, "I was planning on teaching him how to fish and swim right here, too.

"Now, I wouldn't let my dog come in here," Adkins adds.

Less than two months earlier, a storm pipe underneath an unlined coal ash basin two miles upstream from Draper Landing ruptured and spewed more than 30,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan. The plume of gray sludge spread 70 miles downstream, depositing toxins along the way.

The accident occurred less than a month after a broken storage tank in West Virginia leaked 10,000 gallons of a foaming agent used to wash coal into the Elk River. Some 300,000 residents were warned not to use their tap water for anything but flushing for five days.

Both of these insults to waterways were unintentional. In fact, in each case, it was a byproduct of processes designed to benefit the environment by reducing air pollution.

While clean air regulations have greatly reduced the amount of toxic pollutants floating on the wind, some toxic substances are now finding their way into American waterways – not only through accidental releases, but during routine operations as well.

In terms of volume, coal ash – the culprit in the Dan River spill – is the second largest form of waste generated in the United States (municipal garbage is No. 1).

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At one time, coal ash shot out of smokestacks all over the country, until the adoption of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which forced power plants to begin diverting the ash to settling ponds known as surface impoundments or lagoons.

In 2010, there were an estimated 300 coal ash landfills and 584 lagoons at coal-fired power plants in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Thirty-one percent of coal ash landfills and 62 percent of lagoons were unlined as of 2004, according to the most recent EPA estimates available.

"This is a major risk across the country," says Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who has spent the past several years pressuring states and utilities in the Southeast to better manage coal ash. "One-half of all the toxic pollution of all the rivers of America comes from these plants."

Utilities have already spent billions of dollars to help reduce air pollution. And many utilities have taken responsibility when spills – including the one in the Dan River – have occurred.

But to further address waterway concerns, the EPA has proposed a rule that would create new regulations for coal ash. Industry leaders and others foresee a heavy economic burden, including lost jobs. But there aren't easy answers.

"No one would like to live with dirty water, dirty soil, and dirty air," says Tomasz Wiltowski, director of the Coal Research Center at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "But we have to be realistic, also. The best we can do right now is to find the processes that make energy production as clean as possible."

Coal ash is a byproduct of coal combustion during electricity generation. The ash can include a variety of toxins, such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, and selenium. Trace amounts of these substances occur naturally in soil, rock, and coal, but large concentrations are considered harmful to the environment and human health.

Coal-fired power plants generated 110 million tons of ash in 2012, the American Coal Ash Association estimates.

As utilities have invested in retrofits to help rein in air pollutants, the amount of toxins stored in coal ash impoundments has grown.

"If we scrub the stuff that's going into the air, then we end up with more waste that needs to be managed," says John Rumpler, an attorney with Environment America, a federation of state-based, citizen-funded advocacy organizations.

Many coal plants have been retired as new emissions regulations and the availability of cheaper natural gas have made coal-fired electricity generation less competitive. The ash that sullied the Dan River came from a coal-fired steam station in Eden, N.C., that was retired in April 2013.

That plant is owned by Duke Energy, the nation's largest electric power holding company, which was cited by regulators in March for intentionally dumping 61 million gallons of toxic waste at another decommissioned plant in Moncure, N.C. But the company has taken full responsibility for the Dan River spill and has committed to bearing the costs of cleanup.

"We are very committed to closing the ash basins," Duke Energy spokeswoman Catherine Butler told the Monitor shortly after the Feb. 2 spill. "We are trying to determine the best method for this site at this point."

The company was considering three options for final disposal of the ash, Ms. Butler indicated. One possibility would be a full excavation and relocation of the ash to a lined landfill. A second option would involve a cap that would cover the basins but not include the addition of any lining beneath the ash. A third option would be a hybrid method involving a partial excavation as well as a cap for the existing basins.

Environmental scientists argue that any form of storage other than a lined landfill will continue to pose a threat to ground water.

"Everything leaches out the bottom of those pits," says biologist Dennis Lemly, who has been studying the environmental impact of coal-fired power plants and coal ash waste water since 1978. "Springs and seeps that are coming out from underneath those pits are highly contaminated."

During a canoe trip down the Dan, Peter Harrison, an attorney with the national environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, points out several spots along the northeastern face of Duke's impoundment where bright orange liquid visibly seeps into a creek that feeds into the river.

A flurry of honks and splashing sounds cuts through the trees. "Those are geese," Mr. Harrison says. "They're swimming in the ash pond."

Along the creek bank, frogs and lizards still sluggish from hibernation bask in the sun. Deer tracks in the mud lead toward the ash impoundment. Harrison points to what he says is seepage, carving a blackened gully down to the creek.

In addition to seepage and accidental releases, utilities can legally discharge waste water from ash ponds into the rivers. Although this effluent does not contain visible ash particles, it does contain dissolved chemicals, says Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice (founded as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) and a former EPA attorney.

While the EPA has set limits for levels of acidity, grease content, and copper concentrations in effluent, "this is an incredibly short list of contaminants which doesn't include all the stuff we're really worried about, like arsenic and selenium," Ms. Evans says.

Duke University geochemists' analysis of water bodies adjacent to other Duke Energy power plants found arsenic levels more than four times as high as the EPA's drinking water standard and selenium concentrations 17 times as high as the EPA's ecological threshold.

Many legal discharges have resulted in fish and wildlife kills across North Carolina, says Dr. Lemly, who serves as a research biologist for the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Southern Research Station at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"The oversight and regulatory controls have not been adequate," says Lemly, who is considered the nation's preeminent expert on selenium pollution. State officials have been aware of the hazards posed by coal ash water, he says. "That's a breakdown in the [permitting] system at the state level."

So where does regulation of coal ash stand at the federal level?

While effluent discharges fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, solid waste, including household garbage, is managed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Although coal ash is considered a solid waste, it is currently exempt from RCRA.

During her 2009 Senate confirmation hearing to become the EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson pledged to pass a rule that would close that loophole.

In 2010, Ms. Jackson presented to the Office of Management and Budget a rule that would designate coal ash as hazardous waste. OMB responded with a proposal that had two options: One designates the ash as hazardous waste. The other does not, but requires impoundments to be retrofitted with impermeable liners.

Industry leaders worry that designating coal ash as a hazardous waste would place an undue economic burden on utilities. The costs, they say, could trickle down to customers and force utilities to lay off employees.

Four years later, Jackson's term has ended, and the rule has not been finalized. In response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of 11 public interest groups, the EPA has imposed a deadline of next December for finalizing the rule.

In 2011, Veritas Economic Consulting conducted an analysis of the economic impact of regulating coal combustion for the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, or USWAG, an industry lobbying organization in Washington.

The report suggested that the first OMB option would cost the industry as much as $100 billion and as many as 316,000 jobs. The second option would cost as much as $34.7 billion and as many as 64,700 jobs, the report found.

Regulation could take a toll on the coal ash recycling industry, says Jim Roewer, USWAG's executive director. Coal ash can be used to make concrete and wallboard, and the EPA has said that such materials would be exempt from the hazardous waste designation. But the stigma of such a designation would have a "devastating impact on beneficial use," Mr. Roewer says.

Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association in Farmington, Mich., has similar concerns. "If the material is considered to be a hazardous waste for any reason, people are not going to accept those materials into the construction of their homes and schools," he says.

Mr. Adams points to the potential benefits of coal ash recycling.

"Our answer to disposal problems is, don't dispose, recycle it.... Put it into things like cement and concrete, where it is chemically bound and does not leach," he says.

Adams and Roewer support a bill passed by the US House that would bar the hazardous waste designation and keep regulatory control under state purview.

Environmental advocates insist that regulation at only the state level could drive "a race to the bottom."

Mr. Rumpler of Environment America says he worries cash-strapped states would feel compelled to "weaken their standards and endanger public health and the environment in a bid to get more business coming into their state."

State legislation could also be particularly subject to changes in administrations.

The Duke Energy spill, for one, has focused media attention on North Carolina's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee. He appointed businessman John Skvarla to head the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Secretary Skvarla views industry leaders such as Duke Energy as "customers," according to several former DENR officials who say they quit because they were kept from doing their jobs.

In the wake of the Dan River spill, federal prosecutors in February launched a criminal investigation into potential collusion between Duke Energy and the state.

Northeast of Draper Landing, the Dan meanders past farms that draw irrigation water from it and into southern Virginia, where residents of Danville and South Boston rely on the river for drinking water. While water samples taken downstream shortly after the spill indicated elevated levels of arsenic, chromium, iron, and lead, officials from the Danville Water Treatment Plant assured residents that processed water from the plant was safe, having passed tests.

Many residents say they are satisfied with the assurances. Others remain skeptical.

"I won't drink the water," says Jean Williams, owner of Riverwalk Party Store in Danville. "I know they say it's safe, but just to be safe we're sticking to bottled water."

In Eden, N.C., however, folks at Ray's Bait & Tackle worry about something entirely different – that electricity customers will end up paying for the closure of ash ponds.

"I've got a customer that works at one of the factories in town," says Cece Glasgow, a clerk at Ray's. "He can't make more than $10 or $11 an hour, and he's got four kids to feed. His electricity rates went up $150 in one month. That's a lot of money for someone like that. How's he going to pay even more?"


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