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The Boulder Daily-Camera

Coal Pollution: Hiding in Plain Sight

Anne Butterfield


As the nation wakes in a groggy haze in response to the coal ash spill at the Kingston plant in Tennessee, we slowly learn that it's not just the avalanche of coal ash pouncing on the unlucky that should hold our attention; it's also the ash-based heavy metals leaching quietly into ground and surface waters, at up to 70 sites over our nation, that call us to horror and action.

The regulation of coal ash waste, known to be laden with toxins such as arsenic, chromium and more, has fallen thru the cracks. In 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency leaned toward a moderate but helpful standard for regulation calling it "contingent hazardous waste." It lurched back due to industry attack since the waste can in some uses do real benefit and make real profit as construction material. Now the states take care of it all the regulation.

Many state officials and the utility professionals which share in the "policing" of waste management have adopted a laissez-faire attitude that's laced with psychological denial and stupidity.

Allover our country, but especially in the Midwest and Southeast, coal ash is being dumped into open pits and quarries, unlined, often right at the water table. To save costs, coal ash is stored wet in above-ground impoundments allowing toxins greater leach effect.

The surface impoundment at Kingston was given jury-rig repairs when its earthen dam leaked in recent months and years, rather than being overhauled into dry landfill at greater expense, but one that would be less than a tenth the cost of the eventual catastrophic spill.

Jeff Stant, a noted geologist who's been tracking coal ash for years, has reported that officials in Montana purposefully choose wet storage for their coal ash knowing it would contaminate groundwater. They decided they would pipe in city water once residents got sick or complained.

Utility executives in Indiana tested water near an ash waste site near Town of the Pines in which the ash was mingling with the water table, They knew that water was toxic and filed the reports, but the state ignored the reports. The guilt was hiding in plain sight. Company memos revealed executives discussing how to conceal toxicity from residents.

The leach effect in nature can be orders of magnitude worse in nature than in the lab.

Zoologist Donald Cherry from Virginia Tech studied the interaction of coal ash on aquatic environments of three types in twenty states and found pollutants in groundwaters at hundreds and even thousands of times EPA's maximums. Even small amounts of selenium (10 mg per liter) can bio-accumulate up the food chain with fish species in Belews Lake in North Carolina dying off -- with the remaining survivors being either sterile or swimming along with S-shaped spines.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has been getting calls from all over the nation about our standards for coal ash storage, probably due to our state's reputation. Reports on the state's standards are hard to find on the Web and an investigation of Colorado's authority structure and standards for clean management of coal ash waste is in order.

We in Boulder can be pleased that our local plant, Valmont, stores its coal ash waste on site, dry, compacted into a glassy surface, and for the most part up to 60 feet above water level of nearby Legget Lake. A portion of the ash in the 45-acre landfill is very close to water level. The landfill is on top of a hard rock strata known as Pierre Shale, which likely protects deep groundwater but not Legget Lake itself. Xcel is responsible to test the runoff from the ash landfill.

The collapse of the Kingston ash impoundment is to coal ash management what the collapse of Lehman Brothers was to the era of the unfettered free markets. Sound federal regulation has been missing for too long. The party is over.

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