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Coal Ash Now Layered in One More Controversy

coal miningCoal ash is now layered in one more controversy: whether the toxins pollute the ground water and whether it is a violation of the Clean Water Act. A federal judge in Virginia is deciding this issue.

It’s a result of the Sierra Club suit against Dominion Resources, which wants the coal ash moved to a place where it can’t pollute the ground water. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has said that the utility there can leave the byproducts from burning coal right where they are — that this is the safest alternative available. Essentially, the coal would be walled off and rendered unable to escape.

This battle between the Sierra Club and Dominion is the latest in a recent spate of them. It follows on the heals of a coal ash spill in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s territory — one that the then-EPA chief called the worst environmental disaster in American history. It also comes after a heated battle between Duke Energy and citizen action groups over a coal ash spill near the North Carolina and Virginia borders. Can this happen elsewhere?

Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment just did a study that found 21 unlined disposal sites had leaks in five southeastern states. “In all the investigated sites, we saw evidence of leaking,” said Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality. “Some of the impacted water had high levels of contaminants.”

Utilities are now tasked with how to dispose of their coal ash, which the EPA has said is a “solid waste” and that it can be recycled. Nationally, about 40 percent of all coal waste is recycled. Scana Corp., for instance, has said that its recycling rate for coal ash during good economic times is 90 percent.

But the real battle between utilities and environmentalists is over whether the existing sites are safe where they are or whether they should be moved. At present, most such waste is buried in landfills, although those sites must keep a safe distance from surface and groundwater supplies. For coal ash buried on utility grounds, the ponds need to be properly lined to keep the waste from bleeding out.

Coal power plants produce about 140 million tons of coal ash a year, at roughly 1,100 sites in 37 states. The waste contains arsenic, mercury and selenium that is harmful to human health and the environment.

In Georgia, Southern Co. is getting the message. It’s subsidiary there, Georgia Power, has 29 coal ash ponds that took in 2.4 million tons last year. In three years, those existing sites will stop taking in the byproduct from burning coal.

In North Carolina, the battle is more contentious. While Duke Energy has settled a lawsuit filed by the state over the illicit leakage of coal ash that led to groundwater contamination, it must now contend with suits filed by private parties.

The latest: The Roanoke River Basin Association, which claims that the pond holding nearly 7 million tons of coal ash is leaking into a river basin near the Virginia border. A similar suit was filed by two separate entities last year, the Yadkin Riverkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance. Last year, Duke settled with North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality for $7 million for groundwater violations.

All this is coming more than eight years after a coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Author’s Kingston facility near Knoxville, Tenn. On December 22, 2008, a dam had burst, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of “wet coal ash” into the local communities there.

Five years later Duke Energy also had a coal ash spill that released 100,000 cubic yards of waste into the nearby Dan River. The river turned completely grey.

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