EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here for Bill Castanier’s earlier article on the Lansing Board of Water and Light coal ash removal project in northwest Lansing near the Grand River.
The process used by the Environmental Protection Agency to write the proposed rules issued yesterday regulating coal ash would make a good book. It could be called the â€œDiary of a Wimpy Ruleâ€. After much hand wringing and no citizen input, the EPA yesterday issued proposed rules which would, for the first time, regulate coal ash which takes many forms, but is basically whatâ€™s left over when coal is burned.
The good news is that for the first time there would be a set of national rules governing the storage of coal ash. Prior to this, regulation was mostly left to the states that did virtually nothing to oversee the storage or hauling of coal ash. The bad news, at least for environmental activists, is that the proposed new rules did not go as far as covering coal ash under â€œhazardous substancesâ€ but instead chose to offer two alternatives one which would regulate it as a â€œspecial substance,â€ which is akin to regulating it as household waste, and a second alternative which would regulate it as a hazardous substance.
The rule-making will now openly pit environmental groups against industry. These rules are especially important since numerous power plant generating facilities have plans to expand capacity which would create even more residue.
We recently reported that the Lansing Board of Water and Light is currently conducting a $3 million cleanup of a 40-year-old coal ash dump on Lansingâ€™s northwest side. That dump is located a short stoneâ€™s throw from the banks of the Grand River and adjacent to a small wetland area.
Itâ€™s unlikely the proposed rules, when enacted, would have an impact on that site since the coal ash there is being totally removed and hauled to a regulated dumping site. But BWLâ€™s coal ash storage site at the Erickson Plant in Delta Township, which is an above-ground, damned-impoundment, would come under the new rules. The rules could go into effect in as soon as six months or might take up to two years. Rule making is not a science.
Without the monumental environmental disaster in Tennessee in 2008, when a coal residue storage area collapsed spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into a nearby river, it is unlikely that the EPA would be even this far in regulating the coal ash storage problem. The story has been closely followed by the New York Times.
Michiganâ€™s Sierra Club, through their national office, will closely monitor the rule making process. Â They issued this statement:
â€œWe applaud EPA for recognizing the serious health and environmental risks posed by toxic coal ash. Given the track record of state based regulation, or lack thereof, we urge the Agency to adopt the strongest federally enforceable safeguards to protect our communities. Coal ash is currently being dumped in thousands of sites across the country, many of which are unsafe and unregulated. We need quick action to prevent future disasters like the one that happened in Tennessee.â€
BWL uses two million tons of coal a year and produces 70,000 tons of coal ash residue. In an email response to our questions, BWL said 64 percent of its coal ash is sent to landfills and 36 percent is sold to a reseller, Headwaters Inc., for secondary use in products such as carpet, landfill, cement, paving materials and for treatment of agricultural land. Both rule options would still allow the use of coal ash in these secondary products. Headwaters, located in Utah, is a national marketer and recycler of coal ash.
BWL has declined to answer further questions about coal ash disposal and storage without a formal FOI request. They cited staff time as the reason for limiting answers to requests for the results of their water quality testing.
When Ann Woiwode, president of the Sierra Club of Michigan, was told about the need to use FOI she said, â€œI am floored by the idea that a public utility takes this path in getting information outâ€.
The EPA has already issued studies showing that coal ash residue is a serious cancer causing threat. Read the announcement on coal ash rules.
Here is a PDF of the more than 500 pages of the proposed coal ash rules issued by EPA:
EPA – Proposed rules for coal ash