Power plants are not the only source of toxic coal ash, advocates are warning, pointing to a 4,000-gallon coal ash spill at a coal-powered paper mill in Maryland this week.
This week’s spill into the Potomac was far less than the billion-gallon coal-ash sludge catastrophe at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in December, but as EPA sets out to regulate toxic coal ash, identifying the host of unregulated coal-ash generating industries represents an additional challenge for the agency.
According to a report by US Environmental Protection Agency, non-utility coal ash generators are responsible for generating approximately 5.8 million tons of coal ash waste per year. The following industries make up 80 percent of non-utility coal ash generation, according to the 1999 EPA report:
- food processing facilities (i.e. grain and corn mills)
- pulp and paper mills
- chemical manufacturers
- primary metals manufacturers
- transportation equipment manufacturers.
On Monday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent a letter to the corporate headquarters of 61 power companies, requiring them to supply information about their coal ash disposal practices. Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans has spent the past decade tracking the issue of coal ash and said that gaining more information from power plants is a crucial first step.
"The TVA disaster shone a spotlight on the utility industry’s dirty little secret: the 131 million tons of toxic coal ash it generates ever year," Evans said. "EPA’s request for information from power companies is a very important first step. The more we know, the better."
But, Evans added that gaining information from non-utility sector will be an additional challenge for the agency.
"This week’s spill could be just the tip of the iceberg," Evans said. "As little information as we have about utility-generated coal ash waste, we know even less about the disposal practices in the non-utility sector. This is a challenge for EPA: making sure these coal ash polluters don’t get stuck in federal regulators’ blind spot."
The EPA report estimated that there are some 2,300 individual boilers at about 958 non-utility coal combustors. Non-utility combustors are spread throughout the U.S., with the largest numbers in the Northeast and Midwest. The states with the greatest number of non-utility coal combustors are Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The EPA Report notes that environmental controls, like liners and groundwater monitoring, may be less likely to be in place at non-utility waste dumps than at utility waste disposal units.
The EPA already knows of at least one instance where coal ash waste from non-utility generators has caused problems. In February 2008, environmental advocates alerted EPA to an incident in Danville, IL where some 380,000 tons of coal ash from a dry corn mill operated by Bunge North America Corporation were dumped in a ravine adjacent to the Grays Siding neighborhood, a rural subdivision of 30 homes that all draw their drinking water from wells. Elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and other heavy metals have been found in on-site monitoring wells. The fly ash is drifting onto neighboring properties and washing into a stream that flows into a state park.
Kevin Madonna of the law firm Kennedy and Madonna has examined the site and is assisting the community of Gray Siding deal with the threat from the coal ash.
"Until the toxic fly ash is removed from the site, the health of neighboring property owners and the health of recreational fishermen in the nearby Kickapoo State Park will continue to be threatened," Madonna said.
Read a copy of EPA’s report to Congress (PDF)