Hazardous or Beneficial?

By Cindy Rank


While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers whether to designate coal ash as hazardous waste, questions continue to mount about the content of these combustion wastes generated at coal fired power plants and the safety of current methods of disposal and/or use of the by-products.

Nearly two years after the breach of the coal combustion waste impoundment in Kingston Tennessee and the release of nearly 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash, researchers at Duke University have documented high levels of arsenic in sediment downstream of the TVA power plant even as levels in the surface waters appear to have abated.

“For their current report, the team collected over 220 surface water and sediment samples during an 18-month period of TVA’s clean up. They measured concentrations of five leachable coal ash contaminants, including arsenic and selenium. The researchers found that anaerobic bacteria in the sediments produce conditions that reduce arsenic from the common pentavalent form to the moretoxic trivalent form, As3+. Meanwhile, selenium leeches out of these anoxic sediments and migrates to the more-oxygenated surface water.

“While surface water concentrations of selenium were high only in the cove [near the spill site], As3+ levels were high in sediments throughout the 300-acre spill site and surrounding watershed, …”

The researchers also questioned the adequacy of the cleanup and the accuracy of the Toxicity Testing EPA relies on.

“…even after the remediation, buried ash in some locations still contaminates water among river sediments at arsenic levels beyond 2,000 ppb [parts per billion]. In comparison, EPA’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb. (The threshold for protection of aquatic life is 150 ppb.)

If one has heard Jim Kotcon or Duane Nichols speak about EPA’s toxicity testing, the opinions of the Duke researchers will sound familiar. …

“The EPA Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) which is used to determine whether a material must be regulated as a hazardous waste, only considers leaching in weakly acidic conditions (pH ? 4), and does not consider leaching of contaminants under a wide range of pH conditions, nor possible anaerobic conditions. In the case of coal ash waste, our [Duke] results indicate that the TCLP test would greatly underestimate leachate concentrations of As [arsenic] for anaerobic disposal conditions, thus would underestimate the potential impact of coal ash leachate in many situations.”


Whether or not EPA finally determines coal ash and other coal combustion wastes should be considered hazardous, and whatever restrictions the agency requires for its disposal or for its reuse in road surfacing, wallboard and other building materials, etc., the EPA has left to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM for short) the responsibility for regulating and overseeing the use of coal ash as backfill at strip mines.

Here in WV coal ash is being used as backfill in strip mines to add alkalinity to otherwise acidic overburden at several mines in the northern part of the state … most notably several International Coal Group (ICG) mines operating under the name Patriot Mining Company. [Patriot Coal whose selenium discharging mines in southern WV are the ongoing focus of litigation discussed in previous issues of the Voice is an entirely different beast.]

Neighbors of the expanding ICG/Patriot Mining job in Monongalia County near Cassville, WV have challenged the use of coal ash at the proposed 225 acre New Hill West mine. [A portion of the mine is clearly visible from Interstate 79 to the west as you cross the state line travelling south from PA into WV.]

Patriot Mining intends to apply coal ash and other forms of coal combustion waste (CCW) to mined areas on the mine expansion in amounts between 1,000 to 10,000 tons per acre.

The water permit in question already covers discharges from five previously approved surface mining permits, and the proposed mine would add another 225-acre operation that would discharge into Scotts Run of the Monongahela River drainage.

The appeal by Sierra Club and local residents argues that the WV Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) did not perform a reasonable potential analysis of possible water quality impacts and failed to establish discharge limits based on the analysis for specific conductivity, total dissolved solids or sulfate for any of the outlets; for pollutants associated with coal combustion waste (e.g. antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver, thallium, and zinc), etc.

Concerns were also raised about the potential to contribute to another outbreak of golden algae similar to the one responsible for the huge 2009 fish and mussel kill in nearby Dunkard Creek. And mention was made that existing mining at the site is already violating water quality standards.

In mid-November the state Environmental Quality Board (EQB) temporarily blocked this permit expansion and scheduled a week long hearing for December.

Previous Voice articles about the Patriot New West Mine laid out the concerns of residents John and Petra Wood. Speaking for her neighbors about the EQB decision, Petra expressed relief.

“We’re very pleased that the Environmental Quality Board appreciates the risk of harm that will occur to streams and the environment if the company is allowed to conduct its proposed mining operations, and that the board has granted the motion for a stay. … We look forward to the hearing in December which will show the board all of the problems with the permit, and that these streams and our community should be permanently protected.”

Written by Administrator in: Coal Ash,Mining Matters,The Highlands Voice |

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