WASHINGTON — A day after the nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency promised to look into the problem of coal ash storage in ponds such as the one that burst in Tennessee last month, a new report says another disposal strategy is just as dangerous: using the coal waste to fill in active or abandoned mines.
A report by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice on Thursday said that about 25 million tons of waste from coal-fired power plants are placed in mines each year, about 20 percent of the total. The report warned that toxic metals in the waste — including arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead — can leak from the mines into groundwater, and it called for federal safeguards that would end the use of mines for storage.
About 90 percent of the mines used as coal ash dumps are in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and mines are still widely used for storage in Texas as well, said Jeff Stant, an author of the report. Mines also are used for dumping in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, and there are some old mines that contain ash in Maryland, Alabama and Iowa, he said.
Kentucky has a small amount of coal ash in mines, but it's the only state that has done a good job with managing it, said Lisa Evans, another author of the Earthjustice report.
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"Mine filling doesn't have to exist. There are safer alternatives, and that's what we're requesting," she said.
Mines and quarries are dangerous places to store coal waste loaded with toxic metals because the ground already is broken up from blasting, and mines often are below the water table, the report said.
Stant and Evans want the EPA to ban the storage of coal ash in ponds or mines and set national standards for keeping it in lined landfills that are above the water table. They also call for standards that require the collection of water that leaches toxic materials out of the coal ash, the monitoring of groundwater monitoring for leaks and guarantees that any contamination would be cleaned up.
Those standards would make coal ash disposal more expensive, but that cost would be an incentive for companies to recycle coal ash for products such as cement, asphalt and wallboard, Evans said.
Both ponds and mines are part of the problem, Stant and Evans said in a briefing.
Lisa Jackson, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the EPA, was asked by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about coal ash disposal in ponds during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
Jackson said it was something EPA should take up immediately. She said the EPA should determine whether federal regulations were needed for coal ash ponds. She wasn't asked specifically about mine fills.
The U.S. generates about 129 million tons of coal combustion waste annually — enough, the report said, to fill railroad cars on a train stretching from Washington to Melbourne, Australia.
EPA decided in 2000 not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and instead left regulation up to the states.
The Earthjustice report said that in many states, putting coal ash in mines is defined as a "beneficial use" of an industrial waste and exempt from regulations or subject to rules that don't provide much protection for the environment.
"Consequently, enormous quantities of toxic industrial waste are being dumped directly into groundwater without any monitoring or clean up requirements," it said.
Large amounts of coal ash are dumped in Texas mines, where it's seen as a beneficial use, Stant said.
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