Waste in our water: The coal ash problem 

For the past thirty years Jeff Stant has gained a reputation around Indiana as a relentless and tenacious environmental defender. "I grew up in the woods in Zionville, springing animals from traps before trappers got them, I was in love with nature," he says. His current battle is to get coal ash, the by product of burning coal for power, deemed as a hazardous waste by the federal government, "It could be an epic move," says Stant.

The push to regulate coal ash comes from those like Stant, who believe it to be harmful. Because coal contains traces of heavy metals, so will the ash that is left behind after coal is burned to produce electricity. Arsenic, lead, copper, mercury, nickel, selenium, zinc and many other metals are commonly left behind in coal ash.

After 12 years with the Hoosier Environmental Council, Stant has been a consultant for the Citizens Coal Council and the Clean Air Task Force. His current gig is with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington, DC group that focuses on strong enforcement of environmental laws.

The EIP recently released a report identifying numerous sites across the country contaminated with deadly pollutants from coal ash, bringing the total number of sites nationwide to 101. The levels of heavy metals at these sites are well above federally permissible levels.

As the director of EIP's coal combustion waste initiative, Stant points to the legislative history of coal ash as proof that mandating the waste hazardous is long overdue. Stant says, "The delay is the result of a priority that has always been kept low -- no one wants to step on the toes of the power industry. And I don't mean to sound cute when I say the power industry has a lot of power."

The EPA has waffled on the subject for 30 years, meandering through missed deadlines and lawsuits. But the coal ash problem is one that has lingered, refusing to go away. The EPA is now poised to make another ruling on the byproduct of burning coal.

With an administration that is more environmentally conscious than those of the past and a new EPA head, there is a stronger than ever push to put a baseline federal regulation in place. Stant describes EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson as tough, "She's got some guts," Stant says.

Ash Contamination in Indiana

There is no standard for ash disposal for states around the nation. "Indiana's not much worse than other states, they're all pitiful," says Stant. But the abundance of coal fired power plants in Indiana means ash is of particular concern.

Indiana gets nearly 95% of its electricity from coal. Most Hoosiers probably don't pay attention to how the ash from that coal is disposed of. The residents of Town of Pines, Ind. hadn't given it much thought until recently.

The town of less than 1,000 residents in northern Indiana's Porter County began finding levels of heavy metals in their wells. In the early 1970's the Northern Indiana Public Service Corporation began filling wetlands around the town with coal ash. They also used it for other fill projects and to lay roadbeds. Since 1983, the EPA estimates that a million tons of fly ash were dumped into a specific landfill adjacent to the town named Yard 520.

When disposing of coal ash it is not required that the landfill (or retention pond if stored wet) have a liner. Liners are required in disposing of other items like common household trash. In the case of Town of Pines, the ash caused a toxic plume that spread from Yard 520 into the groundwater system. Arsenic, boron and manganese were elements found in water samples that were well elevated above minimum risk levels.

At a 2003 panel discussion with EPA employees, a resident of Town of Pines asked if the EPA representatives would let their children or grandchildren drink water from wells in the town. All the panelists replied no.

Symptoms of exposure to heavy metals vary from acute to chronic. They include but are not limited to: memory loss, learning difficulty, loss of coordination, disorientation, headaches, abdominal pain, convulsions, hypertension, renal dysfunction, loss of appetite, fatigue, sleeplessness, hallucinations, numbness, arthritis, and vertigo. Permanent damage to the central nervous system is possible.

Heavy metals were detected in wells in Town of Pines as early as the 1980's, but residents say they were never notified. Over the past decade, outrage about the incident has fostered the birth of local advocacy groups, lawsuits and EPA intervention. Yard 520 is currently under remediation as part of EPA's Superfund program.

On the other end of the state, the Patoka Wildlife Refuge also had contamination from coal ash. Bill McCoy manages the refuge located in Pike and Gibson Counties. The property is nearby the Gibson Power Plant, the third largest coal fired power plant in the world.

Concerning the contamination in Patoka, McCoy says, "We were receiving water from the Gibson Lake for our tern nesting area." The Gibson plant lake cools the facility and was closed to fishing in 2007 due to above normal selenium levels.

McCoy is keenly aware of the environmental calamity that the primary industry of Southwest Indiana can cause. "Pike County was strip mined for years, pyrites dissolving caused acid drainage, which lowers the pH so that other metals dissolve as well. After a big rain, the waters of the Patoka River used to run orange."

Years later the Patoka River is much improved, but McCoy is concerned about the coal industry's impact.

After finding contaminants in the Patoka tern nesting area, the owner of the Gibson power plant, Duke Energy, built a two-mile pipeline from the Wabash River to supply clean water to the area. The four-foot pool constructed to attract the terns was drained and the soil disked over to bury any contaminants.

McCoy claims to be happy with the remediation and has not had any problems with it since. Still,he is wary of contaminants from the mining and burning of coal, "There's no ash fill in Patoka, we prefer not to have ash dropped in a pit, it might leach, mingling with the groundwater, contaminating wells."

Finally, when asked if the EPA should declare coal combustion waste hazardous, McCoy answers, "I don't see how they can't call it hazardous. It has contaminants in it, they have to contain it."

Built to Spill

Indiana stores more coal ash in manmade impoundments than any other state. According to Robert Elstro of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, there are 18 facilities in Indiana that have coal ash ponds similar to the one in Tennessee that ruptured causing an environmental crisis (see sidebar). Most facilities have more than one pond.

Gibson County's plant is the largest wet ash storage facility in the state, housing nearly 900,000 tons of slurry. For comparison, Indianapolis Power and Light's Marion County storage facility is smaller, at around 180,000 tons stored.

IPL also owns the Eagle Valley Generating Station near Martinsville in Morgan County. According to the EPA's 2009 coal ash survey results, on Valentine's day of 2007, the "Eagle Valley Generating Station released approximately 30 million gallons of ash sluice water to the IPL discharge canal which then entered the White River as an un-permitted release. None of the released material was recovered."

IPL did not learn their lesson the first time. Less than one year later the event happened again. Almost exactly the same as before, 30 million gallons spilled; none of the released material was recovered.

As a result of these breeches, IPL entered into an agreement with IDEM and submitted detailed reports of the two spills. IPL was required to perform a detailed study of the ash ponds at Eagle Valley, and was fined $23,800.

Samples conducted by an independent lab for IDEM detected trace metals in the White River after the incident. Contaminant levels were elevated downstream from the spill. IDEM's Amber Finkelstein characterizes the results as mostly below detection level, with some low level detections. Jeff Stant says of the same data, "ash did impact downstream water quality to levels adverse to fish and other aquatic life," adding that more testing should have been required by the state.

Ash Recycling

The recycling, or beneficial use, of coal ash is seen by some as a key to solving the problem of coal ash and how to deal with it. It is the general consensus that when recycled properly, coal ash does not pose a health threat.

Less than half of coal ash is recycled, but that which is, is used in many ways: road base, cement additive, mine fill, soil stabilizer and as an ingredient in shingle and drywall production.

With the recent deluge of media attention directed at coal ash, many groups are hurrying to figure out what to do with the material. The Tennessee Valley Authority is currently providing funding to Oak Ridge Associated Universities for overseeing research and proposals to find creative, efficient uses for coal ash. Grants will be awarded to top proposals.

Industry advocates like the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) fear a federal hazardous designation would decimate recycling efforts, says EEI representative Dan Riedinger "It would effectively kill recycling because of liability for the industry and end users."

Power plants in the United States currently produce around 130 million tons of coal combustion waste annually, making it the second largest waste stream in the country trumped only by common household trash.

The use appears to be widespread, so how dangerous is it? Dr. Tracy Branam, a geochemist with the Indiana Geological Survey in Bloomington who studies coal ash helped answer that question.

The Science of Ash

Tracy Branam is a tall, friendly and somewhat shaggy haired research scientist who often gets caught up talking about coal ash, "I could talk about the stuff for hours," he says. Branam explains that there are a few different types of coal combustion waste: fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and scrubber sludge.

Most of the contaminants and heavy metals are in the fly ash, which is removed from the smokestacks by electrostatic precipitators. Basically, particulates of fly ash are the same stuff that's not allowed to be released into the atmosphere because of the Clean Air Act. Yet they make their way into the environment through comparatively less stringent standards on ash disposal.

Fly ash is a fine gray powder that Branam warns not to touch or inhale. The scrubber sludge is a clumpy white substance. When mixed together with lime they form a charcoal gray, concrete-like substance that Branam is experimenting with. The substance he has made is surprisingly lightweight and strong.

When asked whether coal ash is a threat to the environment, Branam pauses before explaining that some types of coal ash are very different from others. The different types of coal often determine this: lignite, bituminous, anthracite, etc. And often coal varies in heavy metal makeup from location to location. For example, Indiana coals have some of the lowest mercury content in the nation, but not too far away in Kentucky they have some of the highest.

"The variability of coal ash makes it difficult to determine if it is hazardous. Coming up with a standardized coal ash test would be extremely difficult, like trying to cast a shadow on a mirror," Branam says. He says this is one of the reasons the EPA has so long balked at the prospect of making a federal ruling on coal ash.

So how harmful can coal ash be to the environment?

"It's all a matter of magnitude," Branam replies. "The example I use is if you dump a wheelbarrow load into a big landfill nothing will happen. But if you add truckload after truckload you will eventually accumulate enough to cause a contamination plume." Whether a landfill will leach contaminants also depends on the fracture and gradient of the land.

Geologically there is a natural attenuation of contaminants through dilution, precipitation and adsorption/absorption. Basically, as heavy metals move through the earth they become spread out enough and react with other elements in the ground to become harmless. But these natural processes have limits, says Branam. "I have reservations about the long term stability of things. If you overburden the environment there will be tremendous effects."

Overburdening the environment is certainly a concern. The current regulation system for coal ash in Indiana is decided by a patchwork of authorities -- IDEM, DNR and FEMA all chip in. The result is what Jeff Stant calls "too many cooks and no recipe," meaning the different agencies do not share a common goal. "The (power) industry is basically able to do whatever the hell it wants to do."


The concrete like substance that Tracy Branam made with fly ash, scrubber sludge and lime is being produced through a similar method by IPL at the Petersburg generating station. They mix the coal combustion waste with lime or calcium and are forming a large mound on-site to dispose of their ash. But unlike the solid that Branam made, the Petersburg mound is exposed to the elements.

Branam and the Indiana Geological Survey wanted to monitor the mound to see if it leached harmful chemicals into the environment. They were denied the opportunity by IPL.

Jeff Stant claims that the waste and lime mixture "sets up like concrete, but it's not nearly as strong, it also leaches a high level of sulfates into the environment." The Petersburg site is listed on the EPA's 2007 compilation of potential coal combustion waste damage cases due to elevated sulfates and dissolved solids in surrounding wells.

Branam's most recent work centers on the tendency of coal combustion waste to leach contaminants when it mingles with groundwater. The apparatus he has constructed mixes wet ash for a period of two weeks as groundwater is filtered through it, the extracted groundwater is then tested to see how many contaminants it has picked up.

The test results of his most recent experiments are not completed, but Branam notes that in prior work arsenic and selenium were at times present, while boron and sulfates are more common. He adds that he has not seen mercury or lead, dangerous metals, show up as leachates.


Past instances seem to prove that coal ash can leach significant levels of contaminants if it is in a landfill in high enough concentration. And wet ash retention ponds have been seen to fail in a variety of ways. So what is holding up the process for regulation?

According to Jeff Stant, the EPA has had a proposed rule ready since October. The proposed rule is at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "Lots of people are running interference for the power companies, they're fighting tooth and nail to stop this," says Stant. He expects the EPA's proposed regulations to be released sometime in April.

A recent publication by the EIP says, "EPA's draft rule is stalled at OMB, where an avalanche of lobbyists hope it will stay buried." Stant adds, "OMB has had 28 meetings with the power industry on this. Generally there are no meetings with private interest groups. They're saying the sky will fall if you even propose to regulate coal ash."

Groups opposed to federal regulation of coal ash are organizations like the American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). The EEI is a major lobbying arm for the industry, representing companies like Duke Energy and Indianapolis Power & Light.

These groups claim that a hazardous designation would completely preclude or significantly handcuff attempts to recycle coal ash. The ACAA believes that designating coal ash hazardous could actually increase CO2 pollution, citing figures that for every ton of coal ash used in cement, one ton of CO2 production is avoided.

Stant supports a hybrid approach to the coal ash problem. With current re-use projects for coal ash such as implementation in cement, shingles, drywall and more, he feels a good compromise would be to set forth a federal baseline regulation on coal ash to ensure its safe treatment, while providing exemptions for power companies if they recycle their waste. Coal burners could thereby divert a large part of their waste stream for beneficial use.

Dan Riedinger of EEI does not feel that hybrid approaches like the one Stant advocates would be effective, "You could try to carve out specific exemptions for recycling, but if you deem coal ash hazardous, beneficial use could not continue."

Thomas Adams, Executive Director of the American Coal Ash Association, agrees. He feels a hybrid approach would not work because it would open the industry to class action lawsuits. "Builders are saying they don't want anything to do with a material that can be construed as hazardous." He goes on to say, "If EPA is interested in preserving recycling they have to call it non-hazardous and let the states manage it."

But advocates like Stant feel the coal ash status-quo is unacceptable. "Right now the bottom line for coal ash regulation is the state legislator talking to the industry lobbyist. That's not how regulation should work," says Stant.

For more information on coal ash and federal regulation visit www.epa.gov. For more about the Environmental Integrity Project go to www.environmentalintegrity.org Visit www.eei.com and www.acaa-usa.org to visit the Edison Electric Institute and the American Coal Ash Association, websites respectively.

Sidebar 1:

History of Delay

As early as 1980, the EPA was instructed to submit a ruling as to whether coal combustion waste has an adverse effect on human health or the environment. They had until 1982 to get it done.

By October of 1982 the EPA had missed the deadline to submit its report to Congress. In 1988 the EPA finally managed a report on coal combustion waste, only to miss the deadline for making a regulatory determination later in 1988. The EPA continued to make baby steps throughout the 1990's, often claiming they needed more time to gather evidence.

In 1993 and 2000, the EPA ruled combustion waste non-hazardous. But pressure to regulate it has not abated. After the 2008 Tennessee TVA spill, new attention was brought to the potential federal regulation of coal combustion waste.

A 60 Minutes interview in 2009 spurred EPA Administrator Jackson to request an investigation regarding allegations of a cover-up or other misconduct related to the risk assessment for coal ash. In reviewing the coal combustion waste regulatory process, no wrongdoing was found. Delays in the process of coal ash regulation have been attributed to resource constraints.

The EPA promised to put forth new regulations by the end of 2009, which did not happen. The EPA currently says they hope to put forth their proposed regulations in the "near future."

Sidebar 2:

When the Levee Breaks

To see what brought increased media and public attention to the coal ash issue you have to look at what happened in Harriman, Tenn.

On Dec. 22, 2008 a retaining wall at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant's wet ash impoundment failed. The over 80 acre wet slurry ash pond in Tennessee released its contents into the surrounding countryside and into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, tributaries of the Tennessee River.

The failure of the Kingston Plant's wall also loosed the anger of environmentalists and advocacy groups who have voiced their opinion for years that coal ash and the structures that hold it need to be watched more closely.

The disaster in Tennessee freed enough fly ash, a type of coal ash, to cover 3000 acres a foot deep in sludge. It is estimated that 5.4 million cubic yards were spilled. One cubic yard is over 200 gallons.

To put the spill in perspective, the volume released was 100 times larger than the infamous Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989, a comparison the Tennessee Valley Authority chafes at.

TVA senior vice president Anda Ray wrote about the spill: "While it has disrupted the life of a community, caused some families to lose their homes and doubtless smothered many small aquatic organisms, the evidence indicates that, to date, the Kingston spill has had minimal effects on fish and wildlife overall."

The "minimal effect" on the environment that Ray refers to is estimated to ultimately cost $1.3 billion in cleanup and take years to accomplish. Even the governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, a staunch opponent of coal ash regulation, called the TVA Kingston spill "a horrible environmental tragedy."

Even more alarming concerning that "minimal" effect is the story of nearby resident Gary Topmiller. According to a recent AP article, Topmiller and his wife live near the Emory River. Topmiller says his wife's eyes have been swollen shut for months since the spill and they have both been coughing. The article goes on to say, "Visitors complain of headaches and birds and small animals have been dying in his yard."

Topmiller had recent tests done and found "off the charts levels of lead, mercury and aluminum in his body."

The volume of the Kingston spill and the environmental damage it caused drew heavy media attention and put serious pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to apply tighter restrictions in the way coal ash is managed. Says Indiana Geological Survey geochemist Tracy Branam, "The EPA is definitely going to tighten the rules concerning the management of coal ash."


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