Michigan’s power plants crank out an estimated 1.7 million tons of coal ash every year, and now the state’s approach to regulating the material is coming under fire.
The massive piles of black ash can be seen at most of the state’s coal-burning power plants, waiting to be sent to special landfills for disposal. But several environmental groups say the state’s regulation of the material is lax — creating the potential for environmental contamination.
If the state doesn’t compel the producers of coal ash to take action, the federal government might. Earlier this week, a U.S. Circuit Court judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to submit a plan for regulating coal ash disposal within 60 days.
At the same time, the Michigan Manufacturers Association is about to launch a legislative effort to allow coal ash and two other industry by-products — foundry sands and paper residuals — to have second lives as material for construction and agriculture.
Coal burned to produce steam and, subsequently, electricity produces coal ash, which includes fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag. The byproducts contain arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals.
A report released this morning by the national nonprofit Clean Water Fund faults the state for failing to live up to its “Pure Michigan” promotions by failing to properly address coal ash.
“The regulation we have currently in Michigan looks like a piece of Swiss cheese,” said Nic Clark, state director of Clean Water Michigan. “There are hardly any regulations for some areas where coal ash is stored, and none for other areas.”
The report notes:
■Michigan has 29 coal ash sites across the state.
■Fourteen of those sites qualify as Type III — for low-level hazardous waste storage.
■Of the 14 Type III sites 12 are “either known to be contaminated or considered likely contaminated.”
■Secondary uses of coal ash, such as construction fill, puts some areas in greater risk of environmental contamination.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials feel the regulations in place are strong and call the Clean Water Fund’s characterization “untrue.” In fact, when the EPA issues its guidelines on coal ash handling and disposal, state officials believe they will fall short of what is being enforced here.
Sites that handle coal ash are required to conduct hydrological and geologic surveys before the material is placed there. Monitoring wells around the site are required and, in most cases, synthetic liners as well.
Coal ash fell under the national microscope Dec. 22, 2008. More than 1 billion gallons of slurry from coal fly ash burst out of a containment area at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant near Kingston, Tenn., and contaminated more than 300 acres. It led to this week’s decision from U.S. Circuit Court Judge Reggie Walton that the EPA needed to set regulatory standards for coal ash. That decision was hailed by environmental groups.
“Coal ash has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers across the country,” a number of green organizations said in a statement Tuesday. “Hundreds of additional unlined and unmonitored coal ash dump sites exist, as well as hundreds of potentially dangerous coal ash dams.”
DEQ officials said the Tennessee event triggered an examination of all of Michigan’s main coal ash storage sites.
“The EPA recently completed those evaluations and all of the older sites that utilized impoundments were ranked as satisfactory,” said Jim Sygo, chief deputy director at DEQ. There are areas, he added, where historical storage has led to contamination at certain sites. But no new damage from coal ash is being done.
“The landfills where coal ash is being placed are not releasing contamination,” Sygo said.
If the Michigan Manufacturing Association has its way, however, landfills may not be the only final resting place for coal ash. The group’s tries to craft legislation for the beneficial reuse of coal ash could come to fruition in the next two to three weeks
Andrew Such is the MMA’s director of environmental and regulatory policy and has been in the middle of stakeholders meetings in recent months on the coal ash issue. His organization, he said, is not interested in seeing coal ash used in unsafe applications.
But coal ash can be used in several ways that keep the material from harming the environment, such as in road building, as backfill on non-residential construction projects and as a soil additive. “We should be moving more of this material into commerce and less of it into landfills where it is simply buried,” Such said. “Once these (secondary) materials are tested and used properly, I don’t think they will negatively impact the environment at all.“