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Public Hearing Tuesday on Proposed Coal Ash Dump

Louisville Gas and Electric Company is asking state regulators for permission to build a new coal combustion waste dump at its Cane Run facility in Louisville.  And the proposed dump could stir up controversy.

LG&E says its current disposal sites – a coal ash pond and another landfill, are running out of room.  So it’s asked to expand its facility by nearly 50 acres to accommodate a new dump for the waste leftover from burning coal for electricity.

Residents of the Cane Run area have expressed concerns about the current disposal sites, which are considered “high risk” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of their proximity to homes and the Ohio River.  The agency has recently issued its proposal for the first federal regulation of coal ash dumps and ponds.  LG&E officials did not respond to a message asking how the proposed rules might affect the new dump’s design.

The Kentucky Division of Waste Management will hold a public hearing to discuss the company’s proposal on Tuesday, May 25 at 7 pm at Conway Middle School.

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EPA Will Regulate, Inspect Coal Ash Ponds

The Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it plans to develop regulations for managing coal waste. The news comes a little less than three months after a coal ash spill in Tennessee buried more than 300 acres under ashy sludge, polluted nearby rivers, killed fish, and destroyed homes.

The EPA has also instructed electric utilities with ash ponds to provide detailed information on the “structural integrity” of those impoundments, of which there could be as many as 300 across the nation. Agency officials hope to discover problems at any ponds before they become disasters. And EPA inspectors will be visiting many of the structures.

The information the agency gathers will be available, eventually, to the public. Proposed regulation should also be available for public comment by the end of the year.

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LG&E Cane Run Ash Pond Unlike TVA Pond That Failed

In a story I reported recently about how coal ash is handled in Kentucky, I mentioned both the December 2008 coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Tennessee and LG&E’s Cane Run plant coal ash pond here in Louisville. While they are both coal ash ponds, there are some pretty important differences between the two, which I thought I’d share.

First, the TVA plant was storing fly ash in the pond, in a kind of slurry, behind a tall dam wall.   At Cane Run, the pond contains bottom ash.  Fly ash is the powdery leftovers from burning coal; bottom ash is the sandy, heavier bits. Whereas fly ash slurry is a kind of goopy mixture, bottom ash settles in a pond. Experts believe it’s generally better to store fly ash in dry landfills as opposed to ponds. In Europe, the push is not to store any of it at all, but to reuse ash in cement and pavement.  Also, the Cane Run pond’s dam walls are quite low, and the pond doesn’t hold nearly as much as the TVA plant.

So, the set-up at TVA spelled disaster.  To get a sense of the size and impact of that spill, see these before and after aerial pictures.

However, it’s true the Cane Run pond is in a residential neighborhood, near a rail line, and on the Ohio River. For that reason, the state ranks it as a “high hazard” pond, requiring regular inspections of the dam walls and surrounding turf.All this means that a disaster like what happened at the TVA plant is highly unlikely at Cane Run, for anyone left wondering. But there are many coal-fired power plants in Kentucky, and that means there’s plenty of coal combustion waste – fly ash, bottom ash – being stored and land-filled at increasing rates.

There are also some innovative projects to try to reuse the ash.  For example, at Western Kentucky Energy’s Coleman station in Hawesville, University of Kentucky researchers helped develop a process for recovering fly ash from ponds to extract the carbon and create a new fuel.

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Coal Ash Disaster Prompts New Scrutiny

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.

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Massive Toxic Sludge Spill Goops Up Eastern TN

Nearly 22 million tons of coal ash have spilled into tributaries of the Tennessee River and onto hundreds of surrounding acres.  A retention wall for a coal ash storage pond failed early Monday morning, sending the toxic sludge into the community around the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant near Knoxville.  Coal ash is the waste leftover from burning coal for fuel.  And Attorney and coal ash expert Lisa Evans of the law firm Earth Justice says there’s a human health risk now.

“This is an extremely dangerous proposition because this material can contain all these heavy metals, and it not only can present a direct contact threat, it, as I understand it, has also gone into a river that supplies drinking water to communities,” says Evans.

Evans says drinking water facilities test for metals, but some are harder to detect.  In a statement on its Web site, the TVA says it will continue to sample water downstream to monitor for any harmful effects.  The Authority also says it is putting up several residents whose homes were flooded, one having been knocked off its foundation.