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Tr-Ash Talk: Coal Ash Dirtying Maryland's Waters

(This is the latest in a weekly series of 50 Tr-Ash Talk blogs discussing the dangers of coal ash. Earthjustice hopes that by December 2011, the third anniversary of the TVA coal ash spill, the EPA will release a coal ash rule establishing federally enforceable regulations ensuring the safe disposal of this toxic waste. Vernice Miller-Travis is the Vice Chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.)

One of the biggest environmental challenges in Maryland is protecting and improving the quality of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. There are hundreds of rivers and streams that traverse our state, many of which feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Though we are a thoroughly modern state, we are also a state that has a large agricultural base, and a huge part of our economy is based on seafood, which generations of Waterman have fished out of the Chesapeake Bay. We are famous for our blue crabs and oysters.  

Here in Maryland, we are having our own version of a national debate at the local level. The vast majority of our electric power is produced at coal-fired power plants across the state. Already, several documented instances of violations of the Clean Water Act have been identified at coal ash landfills and impoundment sites in our state. Maryland is home to multiple coal combustion waste sites that have contaminated drinking water wells and polluted surface waters and the environment with arsenic, cadmium, selenium, nickel, thallium and other toxic pollutants.

Our state Attorney General’s office and the Maryland Department of the Environment have filed a lawsuit against Mirant Mid-Atlantic, LLC and Mirant Maryland Ash Management, LLC for violations of the Clean Water Act at the Mirant Faulkner coal combustion waste landfill in Charles County, and the Mirant Brandywine coal combustion waste landfill in Prince George’s County not far from the banks of the Patuxent River, a major tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

Some years ago, a coal ash landfill in Gambrills, MD in Anne Arundel County was closed and clean-up of the landfill was undertaken because of the severe environmental problems found at this site. Recently, the Patuxent Riverkeeper—Fred Tutman—tested drinking water at the homes of residents in an isolated African-American community in Crofton, MD and found elevated levels of barium and thallium coming out of their faucets, as well as high levels of contaminants in a nearby stream that feeds into the Patuxent River. It seems that though the Gambrills coal ash landfill has been closed for many years, the underground contamination plume is moving south from Gambrills to Crofton, which was bound to happen since these two towns border each other.  

A few years ago Maryland enacted coal combustion waste regulations, yet the state opposes the EPA issuing the strictest federal clean-up standards possible under subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Their principle opposition is based on the fact that if the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous substance then Maryland will need to create hazardous waste landfills which we currently have none of. You may be asking, what Maryland currently does with hazardous substances that are generated within the state? 

The answer is, we truck them to Pennsylvania and Virginia to be disposed of. How’s that for neighborliness? Or we allow the permitting of coal combustion waste landfills, ponds and impoundment sites in close proximity to residential areas or ecologically sensitive areas. Many communities in our state (who still rely on water wells) have been drinking water contaminated by coal ash leachate, and landfills have been discharging contamination to rivers and streams.  

We need the EPA to enact the strongest, most protective regulations possible, otherwise human health and the health of natural resources in our state will be further degraded, perhaps irreparably so.