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Thursday, March 6, 2014 12:01 am

IEPA pushes for rules on coal ash disposal

Waste contains toxins that can poison water supplies

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is pushing for rules on coal ash ponds like the one shown here, in which Springfield City Water, Light and Power stores the coal ash from the Dallman 4 power plant.


Illinois coal power plants consumed more than 48 million tons of coal in 2012 – more than any other state except Texas. So what happens to the ash that coal produces when it is burned?

Right now, it’s stored in 91 retention ponds around the state, where toxic substances like arsenic and mercury can leach from the ash into water supplies.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is pushing for new administrative rules ensuring the coal ash doesn’t poison the public’s water. The rules come as regulators clean up a Feb. 2 spill of 35 million gallons of coal ash and arsenic-tainted water into North Carolina’s Dan River.

During two days of tedious public hearings before the Illinois Pollution Control Board in Springfield last week, attorneys and experts from the energy industry, environmental lobby and IEPA trudged through hours of technical questions about how the rules would be interpreted and implemented. While the energy industry has mostly accepted that coal ash regulations are inevitable, environmental groups want to see a handful of tweaks for stronger protection.

“I’m actually very encouraged the state has taken the lead on proposing rules on how to close our ash ponds,” said Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. “With 90 aging ash ponds in our state, this is an area where we need to get ahead of the curve and make sure these are closed in a safe and timely fashion.”

The proposed state rules call for each coal ash pond to have a durable liner of thick clay or synthetic materials that meet standards for permeability and puncture resistance. Each pond would require a groundwater monitoring system with regular testing to determine whether certain chemicals have leached into water supplies. If contamination is found, the site owner or operator could choose between cleaning up the contamination or closing the site. The rules also contain guidelines for closing such sites.

Barkley points out that the rules don’t cover surface waters like rivers, which is relevant considering the recent coal ash spill in North Carolina that polluted the Dan River. Another spill in 2008 dumped an estimated 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash into a river in Kingston, Tenn.

The rules also don’t require operators of coal ash ponds to do a site survey to understand the geography upon which the site sits, Barkley says. Such a survey of the North Carolina spill site would have revealed a stormwater pipe below the coal ash impoundment that had broken and eventually allowed enough erosion to breach the impoundment dam.

When such spills occur, the cleanup is costly, Barkley says, and taxpayers often end up footing the bill. That’s why environmental groups asked IEPA to include a provision in the rules requiring operators to establish a financial assurance of their ability to clean up or close a site in case of a disaster. IEPA declined to include such a provision.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed coal ash regulations in 2010 but never officially adopted them, leaving states with little guidance on passing their own rules. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency proposed its rules in October 2013, but the U.S. EPA announced in January 2014 it would adopt some form of its final rules by December 2014.

With two possible sets of rules, power plant operators in Illinois are facing potential conflicts between them. For example, the Illinois proposed rules call for power plant operators to install a single liner for each coal ash pond. Meanwhile, the federal proposed rules call for a double liner. Only 38 of the state’s 91 known coal ash ponds have liners, a rate of about 40 percent.

During the Springfield hearings, attorneys for the power plant companies raised several issues about their potential liability to clean up groundwater around coal ash ponds. Some of the ponds have been in place for decades, the attorneys noted, adding that there’s no baseline available to establish the levels of chemicals naturally occurring in the surrounding groundwater.

Under existing state law, cleanup of a contaminated site typically uses what’s known as the “tiered approach to corrective action objectives,” or TACO, which takes into account a site’s unique soil makeup and other characteristics. Under IEPA’s proposed rules, coal ash sites would instead have to comply with the generic drinking water standards already set in administrative law.

The rules only address coal ash at storage or disposal impoundments and don’t seem to touch on the issue of coal ash as a product. Some power plants sell their coal ash to be repurposed into building materials like concrete, wallboard and fill dirt. The proposed federal coal ash rules appear to permit “encapsulated” reuses like concrete and wallboard, but the agency hasn’t indicated whether it will permit “unencapsulated” reuses like fill dirt. In Springfield, the overpass of MacArthur Boulevard at Interstate 72 contains coal ash that was used as a filler.

Barkley says Illinois lacks a tracking system for reuse of coal ash, so it may be hard to force accountability if repurposed ash creates problems. Still, Barkley sees the state’s proposed coal ash rules as a step in the right direction.

“I hope this is the start of a larger process to take a more comprehensive look at how we’re managing coal combustion residues,” she said.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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