So what do coal ash and McDonaldâ€™s Shrek glasses have in common?
Thatâ€™s simple â€“ the cancer-causing chemical cadmium.
Over the weekend, McDonald’s pulled the glasses and issued a recall because the glasses contain cadmium. So why is the Environmental Protection Agency proposing regulations that would allow coal ash, which contains cadmium and other cancer causing chemicals, to continue to be sold and converted to items such as rugs, wallboard and cement? Read on.
The Lansing Board of Light (BWL) hosted its 15th annual Chili Cook Off to draw attention to its 125th Anniversary in Lansing. Yet, for more than one-third of those years, BWL was likely an active participant in polluting the banks of the Grand River.
By this time next year, BWL expects to have cleaned-up a major coal ash burial site that resides on the banks of the Grand River in northwest Lansing. As reported earlier atÂ Lansing Online News, BWL has undertaken a $3.1 relocation of approximately 438,000 cubic yards of coal ash that was dumped in the 38 acre former swimming hole beginning in the mid-1960s and ending in the late 1970s. Since that time coal ash has been disposed of in licensed dumps.
Coal ash and its disposal has been treated as â€œsight unseen,â€ with most attention paid to the more obvious air pollution problem caused by coal-fired power plants. What happened to the residue left by the burning of coal was a dirty little secret until the coal industry had its own BP-style blowout in Tennessee in 2008, where more than 5 million cubic yards of coal sludge, stored in an above-ground containment pond, poured into a nearby river and adjoining land when a dam broke.
That was a game changer. After decades of ignoring the disposal of coal ash and letting states regulate its disposal (actually not regulate), the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued proposed rules on May 3 regarding the regulation of storage and disposal of coal ash. Itâ€™s typical for proposed rules of this nature to take anywhere from six months to two years before they are finalized.
What EPA did was nearly unprecedented and confusing, issuing two sets of proposed rules with the idea of picking one or the other after hearing public discussion on the rules. Frankly, the proposed rules are a little limp like lettuce left out overnight. Without going into detail, here are a few highpoints (or lowpoints). The rules, as a tip your hat to the power industry, ducked calling coal ash and its various reiterations a hazardous substance instead creating a new class for coal ash called â€œspecial waste.â€
One reason for this might just be that both sets of rules still allow the sale of coal ash for what is called â€œbeneficial use.” And what is that? It includes spreading coal ash on agricultural sites in what are called â€œsoil amendments,â€ mixing it with concrete and in wallboard, using it in rugs and spreading it on slippery roads as an anti-skid agent.
An entire industry has been built up around buying and reselling coal ash. In Lansing, BWL sells approximately 36 percent of the 70,000 tons of coal ash (2009 numbers) it generates each year to Headwaters, a company that resells coal ash for secondary use and is located in Utah. The company calls itself:
A diversified building products company dedicated to improving sustainability by transforming underutilized resources into valuable products
Â In a recent meeting BWL acknowledged the sale, but also admitted it did not know what products the coal ash it sells ends up being converted into. Out of sight- out of mind.
The Sierra Club which has been following this issue closely recently published their reactions to the proposed rules.
The Sierra Club is especially opposed to not labeling coal ash as a hazardous substance and also was vehement with its criticism of the process which allowed industry to comment and help change the rules prior to their release.
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups in a prepared statement said, â€œItâ€™s almost as though the process is designed to create less protective rules.â€
EPAâ€™s coal ash rulemaking illustrates exactly how the public can get snookered
In a related issue, Consumers Energy last week indicated it would not build a new power plant in Essexville Michigan (full disclosure: the plant is just up the road from my momâ€™s home and a nearby cement factory where they mix coal ash with cement). This follows the Stateâ€™s decision to reject a permit for a plant near Rogers City Michigan which had proposed to dump its coal ash in a former mining area, where leaching of chemicals could occur. BWL put its decision to move forward on a coal generating plant on hold almost two years ago.
I recently met with George Stojic, executive director of strategic planning and development for BWL, who told me that the company is â€œtaking responsibility for what we dumped.. Stojic, who is responsible for environmental oversight for BWL, said the company is reviewing the proposed new rules and has no comment on them as of yet.
On Friday, McDonald’s Corporation issued a recall of glasses from its Shrek promotion when cadmium (a cancer-causing chemical also found in coal ash) was found to have been used in the etching process.
Cadmium is just one of many chemicals concentrated in the coal ash residue which is likely to be classed as non- hazardous under proposed EPA rules for the disposal and storage of coal ash. So be on the lookout since coal ash byproducts have been known to turn up in toothpaste, rugs and who knows what else.
Lansing City Council Person Carol Wood reported in an e-mail message that she plans to hold a public hearing in early July on the BWL coal ash disposal project. I can suggest one question: does the BWL think that coal ash residue should be sold for beneficial use and converted in to wallboard?
Anne Woiwode, executive director of the Sierra Club of Michigan, will appear on our first-ever Lansing Online Radio News at Lansing Community College campus radio WLNZ 89.7, 7 p.m., Monday, June 7 to discuss the Sierraâ€™s Clubâ€™s response to the proposed EPA rules on coal ash disposal and storage.