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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 05:49 am

Coal ash disposal draws ire

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A view of the Crown III mine's coal ash impoundment.
PHOTO BY TRACI BARKLEY, PRAIRIE RIVERS NETWORK

Strolling along Macoupin Creek in October, environmentalists observed in the middle of the day flowing water the color of a moonless night sky. While the samples they grabbed weren’t analyzed at a lab, Mary Ellen DeClue, of Citizens Against Longwall Mining, is convinced she knows why the water was black – it had been contaminated by coal ash from the nearby Crown III mine in Farmersville.

The mine, owned by Springfield Coal Company, which did not return phone messages left by Illinois Times, is waiting for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to renew a permit that would allow it to begin burying up to 756,000 tons of mine waste, or coal slurry, in an 83-acre mine void. It would also allow the mine to continue disposing of coal combustion waste, or coal ash, from 37 different sources, both in-state and out-of-state, in an unlined, above-ground impoundment.

“I feel that that is probably the most devastating to the health and safety of citizens in the communities and the survival of the environment, the fact that 37 sources of coal combustion waste are shipped here. The communities do not know this; they do not realize this,” DeClue says.

Coal ash can contain arsenic, lead and other such elements, but the U.S. EPA does not classify it as hazardous. This past fall – in response to the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority spill, which sent coal ash from a power plant surface impoundment into rivers and across more than 300 acres of land – the U.S. EPA proposed two options for regulating coal ash. The more restricting option would treat the substance as a special waste, requiring increased precautions and monitoring for its disposal at power plant landfills. If adopted, it is expected to lead to a phasing out of surface impoundments.  

That option would be a good move, says Traci Barkley, water resources scientist for Prairie Rivers Network. She cites 12 power plant sites in Illinois where since 2007 pollutant concentrations have been found to exceed water quality standards. “Where this stuff is being disposed of we’re finding problems,” Barkley says.

But even the stricter regulation doesn’t address coal ash at mine sites. “If it’s more expensive or more stringent or more work [to dispose of coal ash] at power plants, the industry is going to start sending more to coal mines where it’s under-regulated and there are fewer requirements,” Barkley says.

Scott Fowler, supervisor of land reclamation with Illinois’ Office of Mines and Minerals, says limits are already in place. While the Crown III coal ash impoundment is fed by 37 different entities, all of those entities near and far burn Illinois coal mined by SCC. Each mining company is only allowed to accept at their Illinois mines the amount of coal ash expected from the Illinois coal they sell.

According to Fowler, Crown III accepts less than its proportional share, taking in only about 58 percent of the company’s coal ash despite producing nearly 76 percent of its coal. “We want to make sure that the ash that comes back was from coal produced from mines [in Illinois], that a coal mine doesn’t become a dumping ground circumventing solid landfill,” Fowler says.

Still, the “piecemeal” approach is problematic, Barkley says, noting that the federal agency setting regulations at mines hasn’t issued any similar proposals or set a timeline to do so.

Phil Gonet, with the Illinois Coal Association, disagrees and says the federal Office of Surface Mining has the appropriate expertise to consider coal ash at mines. He also opposes the harsher EPA proposal, which he says would “stigmatize” the reuse of coal ash in cement and on roads – as was done with coal ash from Springfield’s City Water, Light and Power to build the MacArthur Boulevard extension.

CWLP’s regulatory affairs manager Christine Zeman says the Springfield utility, which has its own impoundment but also sends coal ash to a mine, opposes both of the proposals, which she says could cost the utility, and city residents, $8 to $20 million each year.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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