Monday, August 23, 2010

Coal ash controversy: It's all about the money

Posted By on Mon, Aug 23, 2010 at 12:18 PM

By now, you're probably aware that Charlotte is one of a few cities the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chose to host a series of hearings on their proposed coal ash regulations. There are two regulatory options up for discussion: One will categorize coal ash as a hazardous (or "special") waste and the other will categorize it as, well, not special waste. Currently, coal ash isn't federally regulated at all.

The EPA's proposed regulations are bringing a three-decade-long debate to a head. First of all, where is all of the coal ash? Answer: No one really knows. Second, if coal ash is listed as a hazardous — or special — waste, energy companies claim the price of electricity will rise because, in addition to cleaning up and lining old coal ash landfills, they'll have to institute greater environmental protections going forward. And, the companies that re-use some forms of coal ash, like fly ash, say they're concerned the the substance will be stigmatized by a hazardous waste label and that their profits will suffer because of it.

But, the EPA points out, it's better to re-use waste when possible than to create new products — like cement. The agency claims reusing the waste will actually prevent additional greenhouse gases from being created. That's why, in its proposed regulation, the agency is actually encouraging the use of coal ash waste in products where the substance is encapsulated — like concrete and asphalt. In their view, encapsulating coal ash is safe and a great way to keep the waste out of landfills where it can leak into groundwater and nearby bodies of water.

What they want is to stop is the use of coal ash as landfill — for example: beneath new construction — where rain can wash it to our fresh water supply.

Further reading: New cement cuts greenhouse gases by 90 percent -- Mother Nature Network

This is a huge issue for North Carolina because the state is home to more high-hazard, unlined coal ash ponds (for waste that isn't being re-purposed or used as landfill) than any other state. It's also a major issue for Charlotte, since there are four unlined, high-hazard ponds near the city, two of which are on the edge of Mountain Island Lake — Charlotte-Mecklenburg's main drinking water reservoir.

If you listen to both sides of the debate, you'll hear environmentalists argue that we must protect our water from contamination while energy companies and the companies that wholesale and use coal ash argue that a hazardous waste classification will hamper their business and make products — like electricity and concrete — more expensive.

One thing people on both sides are talking about are lawsuits. Here's why: This one, $60 million dollar example of what it takes to clean up a neighborhood that was built on coal ash:

An entire neighborhood, poisoned for decades by industrial waste buried beneath homes, yards, schools and playgrounds, is poised for the largest residential cleanup in state history.

Starting Monday, the top four feet of earth in 18 square blocks will be scooped up and hauled away. Clean soil will replace it and trees, lawns, bushes and shrubs will be replanted. The whole process will take up to five years and 230 houses will be affected.

Besides lead, elevated levels of arsenic and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons were found. Semi-volatile organic compounds also were found. Though long-term exposure to high levels of certain polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons could cause skin and lung cancer, the state Department of Public Health in a 2004 study said that residential soil in the Newhall neighborhood presented “no apparent public health hazard.” Yet, the report said that people should take precautions, such as avoiding digging or any activity that would tend to disturb the soil.

The health risk comes from dermal contact with the waste fill or inadvertent ingestion. “If there’s no contact, there’s no exposure,” DEP project manager Raymond Frigon said.

While people in the neighborhood have blamed cancers on the contamination, Frigon said the concern has been disproven. “There has been no increased health risk due to shallow waste fill.”

“The theoretical risk is if you have excessive lead concentrations in surface soil there could be a daily routine exposure, especially where children are residing, (playing) in a yard and creating dust,” he said.

Read the entire New Haven Register article, by Ann DeMatteo, here.

The EPA's coal ash hearings will be held on Sept. 14. If you're interested in speaking at the hearings, you have until Sept. 9 to sign up. Learn more about the hearings, the issue and how to sign up to speak here.

Learn more about the coal ash waste sites near Charlotte, all of which are owned by Duke Energy, here. Scroll down the page to "D" and you'll find links to the EPAs latest inspection reports for the coal ash ponds nearest you. You'll also find much of the information is redacted as "confidential business information" or CBI.

One of the documents I find most interesting is a simple memo. And, I should tell you, my persistence is behind it. After the draft report from Riverbend was released, I discovered the nearest downstream town from the plant was incorrect. The EPA listed "Mountain Island Lake," which as we know isn't a town at all — it's the name of our lake and, thus, what the community surrounding the lake is referred to.

Since the report was in draft form, and since I was paying close attention, I thought the EPA would want to know that they included the name of a nonexistent town in their report. I also thought they'd want to correct the record. Instead, however, after several weeks of phone calls — mostly to people who directed me to someone else, the agency issued this very short memo. The agency has also noted the final draft of the inspection report with a call-out box. (See pages 78 and 86.)

Hey, it's better than the report being wrong. You should also know I was initially told by the EPA they wouldn't be able to edit the report at all.

Reminder: 80 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's drinking water comes from Mountain Island Lake. Mount Holly and Gastonia also draw drinking water from the lake.

And here's a 60 Minutes special on coal ash:

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