Is Pollution From Coal Ash a Concern?
We Energies is supplying drinking water to homes near its coal ash landfill in Oak Creek-Caledonia area
a growing awareness of possible environmental and health dangers posed by the
coal ash produced by these plants.
70%-85% of coal ash in Wisconsin
is recycled and used to create other products, like concrete and cement. The
rest is sent to landfills and is regulated just like other waste products.
coal ash sites, and sites in other states, aren’t as strictly regulated.
claim that coal ash is a public health hazard when not disposed of properly.
“Coal ash is
toxic material,” said Rosemary Wehnes of the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the
Sierra Club. “It’s got arsenic, lead, mercury and a lot of toxic substances
that can cause health problems. I think the testing methods have improved quite
a bit since the early days. Now, with the new testing methods, they’re
realizing that this stuff is a lot worse than they had originally thought.”
released last week by the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and
Earthjustice alleges that We Energies’ coal ash disposal site in the Oak
Creek-Caledonia area is a source of pollutants in drinking water. The ash is
coming from We Energies’ recently expanded Oak Creek coal-fired power plant.
calls attention to high levels of molybdenum—a naturally occurring metal that
is toxic in larger doses—and boron in drinking wells in 12 wells near the coal
admits to providing 26 homes near the site with drinking water after the state
implemented a molybdenum standard in 2007. The utility had agreed in 1989 to
supply drinking water to residents if elevated levels of various materials were
found. About 12 private wells have tested above the state standards for
molybdenum, although the levels of the material fluctuate.
it beyond what was required per that agreement,” We Energies spokesman Barry
McNulty said of the utility-supplied drinking water.
while We Energies is supplying drinking water, it isn’t admitting that its coal
ash landfill is the source of the elevated levels of molybdenum. The state
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is reviewing We Energies’ data, McNulty
“But we felt
that the prudent and responsible thing to do, as per our agreement [with the
neighbors] as well, would be to provide the drinking water in the meantime
until a source was determined,” McNulty said.
waste and materials management director for the DNR, confirmed that the
department is trying to identify the source of the molybdenum.
“We do know
that We Energies conducted an investigation recently to see if the molybdenum
is coming from their landfills and they concluded that it’s not coming from the
ash landfills,” Coakley said. “But the department has not yet made that
determination. We don’t know the source yet. We haven’t ruled out We Energies.
But we are looking at what the other sources might be.”
Regulations Up for Debate
McNulty blasted the report, arguing that it was rushed, “irresponsibly
produced” and filled with inaccuracies. He argued that the environmental groups
produced it to generate opposition to coal just before the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) holds a hearing on federal coal ash regulations in Chicago on Sept. 16. The
Sierra Club is encouraging its supporters to attend the hearing.
the EPA leaves regulation up to the states, but it’s proposing various rule
federal Clean Air Act has regulated air emissions, there hasn’t been something
similar as far as federal regulations for the disposal of that toxic [coal ash]
material,” Wehnes said. “I think that the coal industry has taken the attitude
of ‘Don’t look there.’”
could leave coal ash disposal regulations to the states. Or it could classify
coal ash as hazardous waste, which would have to be disposed of in highly
DNR’s Coakley said that Wisconsin
lacks a hazardous waste site. In addition, Wisconsin is a national leader in what’s
called the “beneficial use” of coal ash by reusing it in products such as
concrete. Classifying coal ash as hazardous waste would weaken that effort,
rules state that it could still be used in products,” Coakley said. “But people
who use it in products wouldn’t be as keen on using it if it were classified as
hazardous waste. We think our 70%-85% rate might not go down to nothing, but it
would go way, way down. That would be unfortunate because it’s been so
successfully, beneficially used in this state. We have a nationally recognized
program for beneficial use.”
argues that labeling coal ash as hazardous waste would increase the amount that
would be reused.
“Companies will try to figure out how they can reduce what they’re producing or they’ll look for other ways that they can use it,” Wehnes said.