Coal ash problems spread as EPA dithers, groups say
Environmental groups are complaining about delays in federal action on coal ash, saying improper disposal of waste from power plants continues to contaminate streams and ground water, threatening the health of people and wildlife.
The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report identifying 31 coal-ash contamination sites in 14 states, including one in Maryland, where it said toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, selenium and lead were leaking from disposal sites into ground water, wetlands, creeks and rivers. For more on their report, go here.
The Maryland site is the Brandywine coal ash landfill in Prince George's County, which takes waste from the Chalk Point power plant on the Patuxent River (pictured above). The Maryland Department of the Environment last month formally warned the plant's operator, Mirant Mid-Atlantic, that it faces a lawsuit over alleged water pollution violations for letting high levels of cadmium and selenium get into Mattaponi Creek, which flows through the state's Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.
Environmental groups had previously threatened to sue the Atlanta-based power company over the landfill. The company has declined comment on the threats of legal action, though a spokeswoman has said its landfill is in compliance with existing permits.
Most of the 31 ash sites identified yesterday are still active, environmental groups say. Many are so-called "dry" disposal sites like Brandywine, rather than ash ponds or reservoirs such as the one that breached disastrously in December 2008 at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired power plant.
The Environmental Protection Agency's administrator, Lisa Jackson, pledged to review federal regulations governing the handling of coal ash disposal in the wake of that incident, but the agency has since twice delayed announcing its findings - putting off a decision now until April. Environmental groups contend that EPA action has been held up since October by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is studying the economic impact of as-yet undisclosed proposed new rules.
Activists said that with the 31 sittes they identified, there are a total of more than 100 ash disposal sites nationwide with documented pollution problems. Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said in a statement that "we need to regulate these hazards before they get much worse." They are pushing for federal controls on ash disposal similar to those imposed a little over a year ago in Maryland, which now requires safeguards at all new ash landfills to prevent toxic chemicals from getting into streams or ground water. The state's rules did not apply to existing landfills like Brandywine, though.
(2006 Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)