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EPA to begin series of hearings on coal ash in Arlington

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

 

 

The debate over whether coal ash should be regulated as hazardous waste moves to the front burner Monday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency begins a series of seven regional public hearings in Arlington. 

Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the residue left from burning coal for electricity. It contains heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. What’s not recycled for use in masonry-type products and construction, or used in mine reclamation,  is disposed of in landfills or ash ponds regulated by the states.

Currently, coal ash is not considered a hazardous waste. However, the EPA has been sounding warning bells for years about the potential for environmental damage to ground or surface water if the ash is not properly contained.  A reclassification would mean federal control over the landfills and probably an end to the recycling.

Richmond-based Dominion Virginia Power is in the midst of a lawsuit regarding coal ash. Nearly 400 residents living near Battlefield Golf Club in Chesapeake sued the company and golf course developer CPM Virginia LLC last year, seeking more than $1 billion in damages and the removal of 1.5 million tons of fly ash from the site. Dominion supplied the fly ash to the developer from its power plant in Chesapeake,  and the material was used to contour the golf course, which sits over aquifers that supply drinking water to about 200 residential wells. 

The suit accused Dominion of 12 charges, including conspiracy, fraud and creating a public nuisance. In January, Dominion Virginia Power asked a Chesapeake judge to dismiss the lawsuit, on grounds that the residents failed to show specific injuries caused by the fly ash. Also, while the company provided the ash, it argued that it should not be held responsible for its use by the developer.

The judge dismissed 10 of the charges on June 23, with the counts of negligence and creating a public nuisance surviving. According to a Dominion spokesman, no trial date has been set.

The judge’s decision came two months after an EPA inspection report revealed that residential wells near the golf course had not been impacted by the fly ash. The report concluded that no adverse health effects are expected from exposure to surface water or sediments on the site. The report did find concentrations of several metals above the levels found in soil in the surrounding area. However, the EPA indicated that the metals are not migrating from the fly ash used in the course to residential drinking wells.

Meanwhile, Dominion recently received approval from the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to build a $50 million coal-ash landfill on company-owned land in the county.  With capacity dwindling at an existing ash pond at its Chesterfield Power Station, the company wants to build a new, 70-acre landfill, a mile way.

The matter now goes to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the permitting agency in Virginia, in a process that could take several years.

Several environmental groups support the federal regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste. In fact, a coalition of environmental groups released a report Thursday identifying 39 coal-ash dump sites in 21 states, including two in Virginia that it says are contaminating drinking water or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals.
The new study comes on top of other previously identified sites, boosting the total to 137 sites in 34 states, according to the environmental groups. 

“We now have 39 more good reasons for a national coal ash rule. The mounting number of contaminated sites demonstrates that the states are unable or unwilling to solve this problem,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, said in a statement.

According to the study prepared by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club report, documented spills have occurred at Clinch River and Glen Lyn, plants in Southwest Virginia owned by Appalachian Power, a subsidiary of AEP (American Electric Power), based in Columbus, Ohio. 

John Shepelwich, manager of corporate communications for Appalachian Power in Virginia, said those spills occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s under a wet coal-ash, sluice-type system that’s no longer in use. He said corrective action was taken to contain and clean up the spills.

“We think the right approach is to continue federal regulation of coal ash as a nonhazardous waste,” said Shepelwich.  “By regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste, it will prevent the recycling of ash for beneficial use.”

If the ash is reclassified, “we estimate that the need for new landfills would increase a hundred-fold,” he added. “That in itself would increase the cost of producing electricity with coal. And that ultimately would fall on the shoulders of consumers.”

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