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Sierra Club Fights Dangerous Coal Ash
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by Jim Kotcon, Energy Committee Chair | 2011

For many years, coal ash was considered relatively benign, and few paid attention to its disposal. But a spill from an impoundment in Tennessee in December 2008 drew attention to the risks, just as new science documented serious hazards.

Ground water contamination beneath some impoundments creates a cancer risk that is hundreds of times EPA’s Safe Drinking Water standards. Heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, selenium, chromium, and others contaminate streams. High levels of dissolved solids, alkaline discharges, and even radioactive contamination are found.

Federal Rules Proposed
EPA is considering more stringent rules to regulate impoundments and coal ash landfills. Many from the West Virginia Chapter have filed comments, spoken at public hearings, and written letters and e-mails calling for strong federal enforcement. One of the weakest aspects of the rules is that they exempt disposal on surface mines and other so-called “beneficial uses.” While there are appropriate uses for coal ash, too many utilities are claiming that this loophole exempts them from any regulation over disposal of toxic ash. In West Virginia, almost half of all coal ash from power plants is disposed of under the “beneficial use” exemption, threatening our streams, nearby residents, and downstream drinking water sources.

In addition, EPA has also proposed specific Guidance that would limit mining impacts, including high levels of Total Dissolved Solids from surface mines. A comment period on this Guidance ended December 1, and if adopted, these rules would greatly limit the pollution from surface mines.

New Hill West Mine Permit Appealed
Just north of Morgantown, Patriot Mining is proposing an expansion of their surface mine by adding over 200 acres. To neutralize the acid mine drainage from the site, the permit authorizes disposal of as much as 10,000 tons of coal wastes per acre. The residual limestone and alkaline materials would help prevent acid mine drainage, but they have a significant potential to leach heavy metals and contaminate nearby streams and surface waters.

Local members like John and Petra Wood, with the help of the Sierra Club, have held out against the threat to their homes. An appeal of the water pollution permit was filed on September 3, 2010, claiming that the permit violates the Clean Water Act by failing to set limits for discharges of heavy metals, by allowing excessive discharges of Total Dissolved Solids, and by failing to set limits for Whole Effluent Toxicity.

Jim and Petra
Chapter Chair Jim Sconyers ordains local activist Petra Wood a charter member of the Order of the Ash Kickers at the Mon Group's December Potluck dinner.

On November 18, a “stay” was granted to prohibit mining until the WV Environmental Quality Board hears the evidence. A full hearing is scheduled for December 14-17, 2010, with a decision expected in early 2011. This is good news for nearby residents, as Patriot was expected to start blasting on the site in November.

If we prevail in this appeal of the water pollution permit, many of the pollutants that now are allowed to run into our streams would be regulated at this site for the first time. Stringent pollution controls and more extensive monitoring of the mine and its ash disposal would be required. While we expect that limits on pollution discharges may make the mining more expensive, it is unlikely that we can stop the mining. But we can make sure that any mining operation protects our water and does not expose nearby communities to toxic coal ash.

Do We Need Legislation in West Virginia?
Dumping ash on surface mines under the “beneficial use” exemption means that toxic ash will be released without adequate liners, leachate collection systems, or groundwater monitoring. The West Virginia Environmental Council will be seeking legislation to repeal the current exemption and to make sure that ash disposal sites are properly regulated and monitored. In addition, better testing of coal ash for toxicity is needed, as WV-DEP is still using out-dated and ineffective testing methods.

We recognize that coal ash has to go somewhere, and modern landfills with liners and leachate collection systems can protect communities from many of the hazards. We also know that there can be beneficial uses, and that recycling the ash can create jobs and reduce disposal costs. But adding arsenic to our drinking water should not qualify as “beneficial.”

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