Coal Ash Disaster Prompts New Scrutiny

by kespeland on February 26, 2009

Coal ash is just what it sounds like: it’s the leftovers from burning coal at a power plant.  LG&E’s Cane Run plant in southwest Louisville burns a million and a half tons of coal a year, leaving 150,000 tons of ash behind. The powdery “fly ash” is blended into a kind of cement and landfilled on site. The heavier “bottom ash” goes in this pond.View of the Cane Run ash pond

“This is bottom ash…”

Engineer Jeff Hewn stoops on the shores of this manmade pond teeming with geese.  Behind him stand several modest houses, a road, and railroad tracks.  He sifts some bottom ash that’s washed ashore.  Most of it has settled to the bottom of the pond.  At the end other end of the pond, plant manager Steven Turner points to a small gate that lets water drain continuously into the Ohio River.  Millions of gallons a year pour through it to keep the pond from overflowing.

“We do have kind of a trap system here, so that only water flows out through the discharge,” says Turner.

Turner says they monitor that outflow water for certain contaminants.  But LG&E’s state permit allows a certain amount in every liter.

“The resulting ash from burning coal contains trace metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, and other dangerous chemicals.”

Lisa Evans is an attorney for Earth Justice.  She specializes in hazardous waste law.

LG&E\'s Cane Run power plant smoke stacks“And it has to be handled very carefully so those chemicals don’t re-escape.”

She says safety standards vary by state and by plant, so…

“The problem is, is that there are no federal regulations that provide minimum standards for how this waste is disposed.  So it’s up to each plant, all 600-plus coal-fired power plants in the United States, how they want to handle the waste.  There are some state regs, but they tend to be very lax,” says Evans.

That lack of oversight caught lawmakers’ attention this month at a hearing before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.  Kentucky Resources Council head Tom Fitzgerald testified.  In this exchange, Fitzgerald, and coal industry executive Nick Akins spar over whether the ash should be regulated like any other hazardous waste.

Fitzgerald: “Fly ash, I think the evidence as we’ve gotten better at controlling air pollution, we are shifting the medium of where those metals and where the other pollutants are ending up.  They’re absorbed to the particulates that we’re capturing.  And I think there’s really a need to go back and visit whether under certain types of disposal and management, these should be regulated as hazardous waste.”

Akins: “We do not believe it should be as a hazardous waste because obviously the EPA has looked at this several times and determined it is not a hazardous waste.

That’s partly true. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that waste from coal combustion wasn’t hazardous, which means it didn’t have to be handled according to federal guidelines.  But in 2007, an EPA investigation found 24 cases where coal ash had already damaged water quality and ecosystem health.  The problems were mostly found in unlined ponds seeping into groundwater.  More than 180 unlined ponds have been identified throughout the country.  LG&E engineer Jeff Hewn says the 55-year old Cane Run plant’s pond is probably not lined either.Wier that lets ash pond water discharge into the Ohio River

“As far as what’s underneath the pond bottom, we’re not sure.  Just knowing the natural topography, there’s clay soils and sandy soils in this area,” Hewn says.

That means there’s a chance that water could be seeping out.  Although the groundwater here doesn’t feed the neighborhood’s drinking water supply, it does feed the region’s watershed. LG&E monitors the groundwater for contaminants, but the state doesn’t require them to.  Assistant head of the Kentucky Division of Water Pete Goodman says that as far as groundwater goes, no one really has a handle on the potential impacts.

“There really isn’t a groundwater permit program in the Division of Water. Actually, any injection issues on groundwater issues are handled, primacy is through EPA region 4.  So, to some degree it may be falling between the regulatory cracks,” says Goodman.

While congress and state legislators continue to debate how to handle coal ash and who should oversee it, Cane Run’s ash pond has almost reached capacity, and they’ll need another on-site landfill soon. Industry and environmental groups alike say the best option is to reuse the ash in products like cement.  LG&E’s Steven Turner says they sell what they can.

“We do utilize bottom ash in beneficial re-use projects.  Some bottom ash from LG&E has been used to build the greenbelt highway,” Turner says.

But fly ash is a tougher sell here.

Fly ash landfill at Cane Run“The fly ash, the market’s just not been developed in the United States. In Europe, there is regulation that requires use of these by-products.”

The idea is catching on in the U.S., but not enough to keep up with the more than 130 million tons of coal ash produced here every year.

Comments Closed


Diana Anderson February 28, 2009 at 12:36 am

This coal fly ash is a hazardous material. After the disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, on December 22, 2008, many people in the area have become very sick. They are experiencing headaches that won’t go away, scratchy throats, constant congestion, rashes, bleeding noses, chronic fatigue, and the list goes on. The toxic coal fly ash has uranium attached to it, and the ash pond is full of arsenic, lead, antimony, aluminum (causes alshiemers), cadmium, boron, barium, and the list goes on.

Thirteen people from the impacted communty out of fifty, in the vicinity of the Kingston Coal Fire Plant, who were tested for heavy metals have a disease called Porphyrin. The disease effects people in different ways. It can cause burns on the tops of the hands and cause the skin to feel ultra sensitive to sun light. The burns are amazingly painful. The disease can be as bad as causing a person to become a quadrapilegic and even be fatal. There is no cure for the very rare disease and it is passed on genetically to the children.

People in the close vicinity of all Coal Fire Plants should get heavy metal testing and especially testing for the Porphyrin disease. You can learn about the disease at American Porphyrins Foundation website.

The reason that I wrote this comment is that I am one of the people who now have this disease because of the Kingston Coal Fire Plant ash ponds.

KLittle June 15, 2009 at 11:23 pm

How do I go about getting tested for Porphyrin disease? What type of test is it. I have lived across the street from the Cane Run Road power plant in Louisville KY for about 30 years.

Kristin Espeland June 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Dear KLittle,
I certainly can’t give any medical advice, but I can tell you what a very cursory review of the medical literature tells me about the possible connection between environmental exposure and porphyria diseases. Apparently, this is a suite of diseases that can be inherited but also caused by environmental factors, including infection, alcohol consumption, and certain drugs. Some researchers find a link between certain porphyrias (which can impact the skin and nervous system) and toxic metal exposure. A 2006 article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found a link between environmental toxicity, autism, and porphyrin levels. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:

“To address a possible environmental contribution to autism, we carried out a retrospective study on urinary porphyrin levels, a biomarker of environmental toxicity, in 269 children with neuro-developmental and related disorders referred to a Paris clinic (2002-2004), including 106 with autistic disorder. Urinary porphyrin levels determined by high-performance liquid chromatography were compared between diagnostic groups including internal and external control groups. Coproporphyrin levels were elevated in children with autistic disorder relative to control groups. … The atypical molecule precoproporphyrin, a specific indicator of heavy metal toxicity, was also elevated in autistic disorder (P < 0.001) … These data implicate environmental toxicity in childhood autistic disorder.”

I don’t understand all of the medical terminology, but I’m pretty sure anyone can understand the disturbing finding in the last sentence.

I encourage you to seek a doctor’s advice if you’re concerned.

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