An Illinois environmental group is one of 11 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking a new evaluation of coal ash - a controversial byproduct of coal energy that they say should be considered a hazardous waste. If the lawsuit prevails, it could significantly increase costs for Springfield City Water, Light and Power.
Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network joined the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Native American tribe in Nevada and environmental groups in six other states asking a federal court to force EPA to reevaluate its classification of coal ash – the solid byproduct of burning coal for power – as a nonhazardous waste.
The plaintiffs in the coal ash lawsuit claim EPA violates the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) – the main legal framework for federal regulation of hazardous and nonhazardous waste – by not implementing more stringent rules on coal ash storage. They say EPA has failed to revisit its regulations every three years, as required under the RCRA. The plaintiffs also cite EPA studies that found an elevated risk of cancer for people living near coal ash storage sites, which the plaintiffs say show EPA is aware of the hazards of coal ash but has failed to act.
Though the makeup of coal varies by location, coal ash generally contains toxic substances like arsenic and mercury, along with radioactive metals like uranium and radium. When coal is burned in power plants, the ash is collected and usually stored in above-ground pits or sent back into the same mines from which the coal came.
Environmental groups like Prairie Rivers Network say the ash can leach toxins into soil and aquifers, poisoning the ground and drinking water. But the coal industry relies on studies they say have failed to show coal ash is dangerous. The EPA regards coal ash as nonhazardous, meaning it can be stored in unlined, unmonitored pits or even used in commercial products like drywall and concrete. EPA’s website says toxin levels in “coal combustion residuals” like coal ash “rarely reach” the threshold set for hazardous wastes under RCRA.
Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, points out that Springfield’s MacArthur Boulevard extension to Interstate 72 used coal ash as a filler material, which lowered the project cost compared with using soil fill.
“We think it should be regulated as a nonhazardous material,” Gonet says. “There have been several studies done by USEPA that go back 25 to 30 years, and there are several beneficial uses that save consumers millions of dollars.”
A handful of coal mines near Springfield accept coal ash for storage, including the Crown III mine near Farmersville, owned by Springfield Coal Company, and the Viper Mine in Williamsville, owned by Arch Coal Inc. of St. Louis.
High-profile spills of coal ash have triggered concerns among environmental groups, including the 2008 failure of a coal ash dam in Kingston, Tenn., that spilled one billion gallons of coal ash into a river, displacing several families and causing $1.2 billion in cleanup costs. Independent tests have allegedly shown elevated toxin levels in the river, but official tests by the Tennessee Valley Authority have concluded the water still met drinking water standards.
If the lawsuit succeeds in getting coal ash classified as a hazardous waste, it could force the closure of a series of ash ponds used by Springfield’s municipal utility to store ash produced by the Dallman 4 power plant.
“We believe it to be unnecessary for the USEPA to step in with additional regulations and for the added costs in the tens of millions of dollars that would be incurred by CWLP if coal ash were classified as a hazardous waste,” said Amber Sabin, spokeswoman for CWLP.
Sabin estimates that closing the utility’s ash ponds would cost about $22 million, in addition to increased disposal costs of between $8 million and $20 million due to increased competition for disposal capacity.
A report released in August 2011 by the Prairie Rivers Network and the Environmental Integrity Project found high levels of arsenic in the CWLP ash ponds, though Sabin says the report misleadingly applied drinking water standards to groundwater. [See “Arsenic, lots of it, found around CWLP’s ash ponds,” Aug. 25, 2011.]
“Our ash ponds are currently regulated by the (Illinois) EPA and the (Illinois Department of Natural Resources) and are fully compliant,” Sabin said. “IDNR inspected these ponds last summer and found that they are structurally sound. No influence from the ash ponds has affected Springfield’s drinking water.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.