Friday, June 26, 2009

Three million tons of coal ash headed this way

Three million tons of coal ash headed this way

Perry County Herald, June 11, 2009

What do 3 million tons look like? Picture the USS Alabama, times 86. In weight, that’s about how much fly ash [a byproduct of coal-burning power plants] the Tennessee Valley Authority hopes to inter over the coming months at PCA Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown. The ash is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency of Alabama Dept. of Environmental Management as a hazardous waste, but that hasn’t stopped many from questioning the impact the waste could have on Perry County’s environment or public health.

TVA had been storing the ash in a retaining pond — an open, unlined landfill — at a coal-burning power facility near Kingston, Tenn. The holding facility broke on Dec. 22 of last year, and over one billion gallons of ash sludge spilled out onto 400 surrounding acres and into nearby bodies of water. Since that time, TVA has been scrambling to get the spill cleaned up and the ash removed.

Pennsylvania’s Dept. of Environmental Protection has rejected a request by TVA to dispose of the waste in that state, where TVA hoped it would be used to fill in abandoned coal mines. A similar deal is being suggested for an abandoned mine near Crossville, in the ash’s home state of Tennessee. According to news reports, Cumberland County is being offered a hosting fee of around $8,000,000 to allow a private construction company to convert an abandoned strip mine there into a coal ash landfill. Residents and commentators in Tennessee have warned against the arrangement, citing concerns about potential environmental and logistical headaches it could create for the county.

Also in competition for the coal ash were landfills in two predominately-black, impoverished communities in the south: Taylor County, Ga. and Perry County, Ala.

Elected officials from Perry County have worked to ensure the material is disposed of here. The estimated 3 million or more tons to be disposed at the facility, coupled with the $1.00 per ton hosting fee the landfill owners pay to Perry County Commission, could mean an infusion of over $3 million for the county’s general fund.

A delegation including County Commissioners Clarence Black, Fairest Cureton, Tim Sanderson, and Albert Turner; along with Marion City Councilman Corin Harrison and Uniontown Mayor Jamal Hunter, left Craig Field in Selma on Monday, June 8 bound for Tennessee. The purpose of the flight was reportedly to negotiate with TVA to bring the ash here. [Ed. Note: Commissioners were also joined by Eddie Dorsett and Mike Smith representing the owners of Arrowhead Landfill. The commissioners, at their Tuesday, June 23 meeting, said the visit was only “informational” in nature.]

The tipping fee for the landfill has been at issue for most of the past year, with members of Marion and Uniontown’s City Councils arguing that an agreement made in the past ensured a portion of that $1.00 per ton would be divided between both cities. Currently, the entire tipping fee goes to the County Commission. The issue still has not been publicly resolved.

Marion earns revenue from the landfill already. For a fee, the city accepts and disposes of the landfill’s leachate: water and other liquids that leach through the layers of trash and then settle at the bottom of the landfill cell. This liquid is pumped out and shipped via tanker truck to Marion’s municipal water treatment facility, where it is processed along with the city’s own sewage and waste water.

Because the ash is considered a non-hazardous waste under both the EPA and ADEM, and because the Arrowhead Landfill already possesses a landfill permit from the state, Perry County Commission is not required to vote on the issue.

The website for the landfill lists the types of waste it currently accepts under the classification of “Industrial Waste.” The website ha not been updated to include fly ash, and in fact states: “This term does not include fly ash waste, bottom ash waste, boiler slag waste, or flue gas emission control waste which result from the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels at electric or steam generating plants.”

However, a letter released by the state of Tennessee indicates the landfill owners had requested permission from ADEM to take the waste as early as April 9, permission Alabama granted later that month. The news that the fly ash could be coming to Perry County did not surface until early May.

The landfill owners have also submitted a permit modification application to ADEM on June 3. The modifications to the permit appear to double the amount of waste the landfill is currently allowed to accept from 7500 tons per day to 15000. This amount is actually a “maximum average daily volume,” meaning the facility may accept more or less waste each day, as long as its average daily acceptance is under 15000 tons. The number of train cars needed to ship the ash to Perry County is estimated at 35000.

The application also includes a modified list of states form which the landfill may accept waste, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

TVA sent test shipments last month to both landfills, reportedly to see which facility did a better job disposing of the waste. Approximately 15000 tons of the waste went to the landfill in Perry County last month. TVA spokesman Barbara Martocci said Tuesday that the company submitted a letter of intent to EPA last week. The letter proposes sending the estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of ash waste to Uniontown.

The landfill is currently an approved facility for storing the ash in the eyes of EPA and ADEM: unlike the TVA ponds, the Arrowhead facility is protected with two layers of plastic liner.

Proponents say this liner, coupled with the natural Selma Chalk limestone formation underneath the landfill, will protect groundwater from toxins contained in the ash. Opponents, including Dr. Sam Stevenson, professor of chemistry at Judson College, have pointed out that all landfill liners eventually fail. “It’s not a question of it, but a question of when,” Stevenson said.

Toxic constituents found in fly ash vary, but are known to include: arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium IV, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with with dioxins and PAH compounds.

An independent study led by Dr. Avram Vengosh at Duke University on samples of ash from the Kingston spill found it contained more radioactive material, including radium, than most fly ash. It also found higher-than-normal concentrations of the toxic heavy metal arsenic. Both are cancer-causing materials, and arsenic is the leading cause of acute heavy-metal poisoning in adults today.

The ash poses its most immediate danger if released into the air or drinking water, or with prolonged skin contact. Leaders and TVA officials have said safety precautions during transportation, disposal and storage will decrease those potential dangers.

Commissioner Tim Sanderson said the coal ash will be shipped and buried wet to cut down on the dust it can produce. “It’s going to be shipped wet and covered within an hour,” he said.

As long as the ash stays where it is supposed to, scientific opinion suggests it poses little danger. The worry expressed by some, though, is that things don’t always work out as planned. If they did, the ash would sill be in a retaining pond in Tennessee. 

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