Special Report – Coal Ash: Harmless or Hazard?
When you flip on the light switch or use a hairdryer every morning, you’re contributing to a growing problem.
Because most of this region’s power generation comes from burning coal, we’re creating piles of potentially dangerous waste.
Right now, there are no federal regulations governing its disposal.
This week, KMOX News looks at the national debate over what to do with coal ash.
“On the Missouri side, we generate about a million tons a year,” says Mike Menne, Vice President of Environmental Services for Ameren Corporation, “and on the Illinois side just a little less than that, so it’s probably in the 600,000 to 700,000 ton range.”
For decades coal ash has been dumped in power plant retention ponds with varying levels of environmental safeguards depending on the technology and standards of the time.
Menne says the bulk of the waste — 95-percent — is made up of things like calcium, aluminum and silicone, “inert materials… … the sorts of things you find in earth and sand and other things.”
But it’s the remaining components of ash that have communities and environmental groups scared — lead, arsenic, mercury, selenium — linked by studies to cancer and scores of other diseases.
“We’re seeing concentrations of metals in the underlying ground water that are several to many times over the drinking water standards,” says Jeff Stant, Director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative for the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project.
EIP and two other environmental groups recently completed a study of some of the nation’s coal ash ponds.
But in Missouri, they weren’t able to tell how much environmental damage may have been done. “There basically wasn’t monitoring data available because state law doesn’t require that they [utilities] collect and submit such data,” points out Stant.
Ameren’s Mike Menne says the first ash ponds were developed decades ago, “the whole idea of putting the ash in ponds from the very beginning was to minimize exposure to the public and environment.” And Menne says technology for containing that waste has improved. “I would really have no qualms about living near one of these facilities.”
Ameren is proposing a state-of-the art 400-acre site next to its plant in Labadie, Missouri to hold the coal waste in a solid, dry form. (We’ll have more on that project in later reports.) That’s met opposition from the members of the community, who don’t want to live near it.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has opened a series of public hearings across the country to determine how coal ash should be regulated at the federal level. Basically the options are to handle it under solid waste rules, or govern its disposal under hazardous waste regulations.
KMOX News continues our reports the rest of this week. You’ll hear perspectives on whether coal ash is endangering our waterways and water supplies; hear the arguments for and against ways to recycle coal waste; and hear the pros and cons of treating coal ash like a hazardous waste.
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