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Tr-Ash Talk: Arsenic, Mercury and Lead Non-Hazardous?

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View Raviya Ismail's blog posts
07 September 2011, 12:50 PM
Labadie, Missouri residents challenge new coal ash pond
Labadie, MO, coal-fired power plant

Last month, Missouri had the dubious distinction of being one of the 12 worst states when it comes to coal ash regulations. In a front-page article that has generated a lot of buzz, residents of Labadie, Missouri have justifiably come together to oppose a new 400-acre coal ash landfill at a site where an existing pond has been leaking – for nearly two decades.

In line with our report, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has not even monitored groundwater contamination at the site, which is precisely the issue with residents – they are fearful that the lead, mercury, arsenic and selenium found in coal ash has made its way into their drinking water. But of course the Missouri DNR has no idea if it has, because it’s not required to keep tabs on whether coal ash has contaminated residents’ drinking water.

See why residents are so fearful of another coal ash pond?

Ameren, the company that owns the power plant and coal ash storage sites, has a similar site in Venice, Illinois. That site has been monitored for groundwater contamination and guess what? Levels of iron, arsenic, boron and manganese that exceeded drinking water standards were discovered there.  Specifically, the article states:

At Labadie, Ameren uses water to wash the waste to unlined ponds west of the plant. There, the waste sinks to the bottom, and the water drains through a permitted outfall into Labadie Creek and the Missouri River. One pond, constructed in 1993, has a protective liner. The leaking 154-acre ash pond, which began receiving coal ash when Labadie began operation in 1970, actually has two leaks, according to information provided by Ameren to the DNR. The smaller one, flowing at up to 5 gallons a minute, is near the wastewater outfall and leaks into the creek. The other leak releases up to 30 gallons a minute on the south side of the pond. Combined, that's the equivalent of more than 50,000 gallons of water escaping the ponds each day, or nearly 350 million gallons over 19 years.

And this wouldn’t be a coal ash story without a coal official adding the whole “coal ash is non-hazardous” myth. In a guest column refuting much of the fact-based article, Mark C. Birk (VP of power operations for Ameren Missouri) contends that coal ash is “inorganic non-hazardous waste.” What part of arsenic, mercury, and lead seems non-hazardous to you?

Yet, toward the end of Birk’s piece he agrees that the ponds at Labadie are overfilling. And he uses this as an argument for another storage site to store – you guessed it – even more coal ash. Makes no sense if you ask me.

Coal ash would be hazardous under the existing regulatory definitions if our utility-funded legislators hadn't bent over backwards to provide them an exemption for coal ash.

Coal ash can be vitrified so the heavy metals are not leachable, or it can be disposed of in properly-engineered, hazardous waste landfills with double, composite liners.

The excuse given makes no sense as coal-ash contains arsenic, mercury, and lead which are hazardous.

A few thoughts:

1) Regulatory agencies are often funded just barely enough to do what they are required to by law. They typically do not have extra resources laying around for things they are not obligated to do. The legislatures make sure of that. The legislatures also make the laws that determine what the agency's obligations are in the first place. So don't automatically blame the regulators.

2) The 'leak' story does not make sense. The stuff goes into a pond, and the water drains out through a 'permitted outfall' into the creek. How is the 'leak' - which just sounds like water exiting at a different spot - any worse than the permitted outfall?

3) BTW, permitted outfall usually means the owner has an NPDES permit, which typically requires some kind of monitoring by the discharger for whatever contaminants are in the discharge. Have you looked at the permit? It should be a public document.

4) I bet you are smart enough to know that 'non-hazardous' is a regulatory term meaning the waste is not classified as a RCRA Hazardous Waste. It does not mean that it is clean or safe or that it presents no toxic hazard. So this is kind of a red herring, don't you think? The question is really whether the concentrations present in the waste pose a risk to human health or the environment.

5) Finally, what's your solution? Although most of us would like to stop burning coal tomorrow, it is not going to happen that fast. We are all responsible. What do you suggest we do with the stuff?

Your right it does not make sense at all. Thanks for the blog post

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