A new kind of Ash Wednesday

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This Margaret Mead quote sums up the intent of a Sierra Club forum on coal ash – held, interestingly enough, on the day Catholics celebrated Ash Wednesday this year, Feb. 25.

Speakers to a packed house of those thoughtful, committed citizens at the county council’s quarters in Georgetown included Dr. Chad Toleman, retired DuPont chemist and visiting University of Delaware scientist; John Austin, retired EPA scientist; and Bill Zak, founder of Citizens for Clean Power.

Toleman spent much of his talk describing the chemical composition of coal, the amount of carbon dioxide it produces and the effect it has on global warming. He explained that if people keep going as is “business as usual,” the next century could see a huge environmental impact and loss of land.

“New Castle County will be beachfront property,” he said. Pointing to a slide from his presentation, he explained, “This is my house right here,” motioning toward a simulated image of northern Delaware with Kent and Sussex counties under water. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

His current work includes participating in a student assessment of Delaware’s offshore wind resources, and he has worked to support development of those resources. In comparison to solar power and biomass, Toleman said, wind is Delaware’s most efficient and plentiful renewable resource.

“It’s pretty clear what we’ve got to do,” he said, of moving in the direction of offshore wind power. “To quote Dr. James Goddard, ‘There’s no such thing as clean coal.’”

John Austin spent much of his presentation talking about the Tennessee coal ash spill that happened in December of 2008 and what it would look like should something similar happen at the Indian River power plant.

He said the 400 acres of impacted land and 9 feet of sludge in Tennessee is costing $1 million per day to clean up, with an estimated cost of between $500 million and $800 million, but he noted that the real cost cannot be measured in dollars but is instead measured in the impact on quality of life.

“These are hazards not seen on your electric bill,” said Austin of coal-fired power plants and, subsequently, their fly ash. “They are seen in your medical bills, with heart disease and infant deaths. Fly ash contains silica, alumina, lithium, arsenic and radium.”

He went on to say that the 1.2 million tons of coal burned each year at the Indian River power plant and the more than 1,000 tons of smoke out of the smoke stack “shorten the lives of 95 Delawareans a year, is responsible for a 26 percent increase in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, and a 40 percent increase in infant deaths from other respiratory diseases in places with fine particulate matter pollution.”

He said that the sheer act of “licking your lips” after being outside after a day of gardening constitutes a measurable ingestion of the fly ash; so, in addition to air or water pollution, nearby residents are at risk for poisoning from actual ingestion.

Currently, fly ash from coal-fired power plant is not labeled a hazardous waste, something Austin said the EPA had been working to change, but the $1 billion dollar price tag of regulation stopped the process in 2000.

“The shortcomings of Delaware regulations are they are seldom re-opened. Since 1974, nothing’s changed. We don’t retroactively apply regulations. Even if it’s regulated, why are we accepting the risk? We can do better. Coal accounts for 50 percent of our electrical energy, and coal and natural gas [together] make up 70 percent. We need to do more to reduce our use of coal.”

Zak spoke to the audience mainly of three things he is trying to tackle with NRG in Millsboro: coal ash storage, an upgrade to the cooling system to protect fish and water quality in the inland bays, and air monitoring near the plant “as an aid to determining the cause of cancer clusters downwind of the plant,” in areas like Lewes and Ocean View.

He also went through the past 10 months of happenings concerning DNREC and NRG, the first being a remedial plan of action on an old 144-acre fly ash pit at Burtons’ Island after a DNREC employee sited some erosion near the site.

The proposed plan pertained only to the areas of the ash storage areas designated as Operable Units (OU) 1 and 3, because of the magnitude of the total area needing to be studied. But much of the interest shown back in May stemmed from participants concerned about OU2, the actual ash pile itself, and support for getting rid of it entirely.

“In order to be protective of human health and the environment, the plan needs to include construction of a barrier to prevent further release of contaminated groundwater from the site,” Austin said in questioning DNREC officials, back in May of 2008. “What’s to prevent that groundwater from crossing into OU1? There is no barrier mentioned. And there is a high level of arsenic — not insignificant arsenic. No one is living there or drinking the water, but it is seeping into the fish and people are eating the fish. At what point do you prohibit people from taking fish?”

DNREC representatives said then that groundwater is a subject matter for their OU2 investigation, which at that time had not yet started.

In June, residents again heard from DNREC about a proposed plan for a permit for Phase II landfill adjacent to the Phase I landfill. After hearing from opposing residents again, DNREC permitted that project in October of last year.

Late last fall, the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Center for Inland Bays presented its board with a recommendation to appeal the new Phase II landfill permit. While the CIB did offer an alternative solution to DNREC, in the form of a separate motion, they would not go so far as officially appealing it, saying that an official appeal was not something they were comfortable filing as a board.

Complicating that decision was the fact that some board members represent the agencies that would be hearing the appeal, as well as the CIB’s history as a group founded by the state with a grant from the EPA.

Two representatives of the state whose positions routinely have a seat on the CIB board –now-former Secretary Michael T. Scuse’s of the Delaware Department of Agriculture, and past Secretary John A. Hughes of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control – and Ed Ambrogio of the Environmental Protection Agency (ex-officio) were not present at that vote.

Zak, not content to let the appeal die with the CAC or the CIB, is taking the issue on, with Citizens for Clean Power.

“They are selling the new one because it’s lined,” said Zak of the old and new disposal sites. “Nothing else differs in terms of flood events or coal ash wind flying off. We have no air monitoring regulations, or we ignore our own regulations. And we can’t set emission limits if we don’t have air monitors,” he added, saying that problem is something that has been an issue for more than six years now. “So I am appealing.”

Zak went on to say that CCP’s goal is to get DNREC, and the agency’s as-yet-unnamed new head under Gov. Jack Markell to realize, and pay attention to the public health effects NRG has on Sussex County citizens and to listen to what people are saying. But he is not hopeful that the appeal to the Environmental Appeals Board will do the trick.

“[DNREC] ignored the CAC and six civic and environmental organizations,” he said. “And I have just learned the other day, which I did not know, that they have filed a pre-hearing motion for dismissal because I have to show unique harm to be eligible to appeal. As a non-lawyer, it is very iffy if I am even able to bring up any issues. This fight is so much dirtier that I thought it needed to be,” said Zak.

Zak also questioned the probable sale of NRG to Exalon and how that would affect responsibility for the impact of the plant down the road. He is confident that Markell will be an ally in his fight for cleaner power.

Zak further said that he did not know who sits on the Environmental Appeals Board but did believe they were political appointees – something else he wanted to being up with Markell, with thoughts that non-politically-tied persons with scientific backgrounds might serve as a more unbiased board and also that public health should be more of their focal point rather than personal damages.

Calls to DNREC concerning the makeup of the board were not returned by Coastal Point’s press time for this story.

“I believe in showing up,” offered June Satterfield of the Sierra Club at the Feb. 25 meeting. “What if everyone in this room came? We can’t be ignored.”

To the lone audience member questioning his position, who inquired, “We all need electricity. What do you suppose we do?” Zak answered that, in 10 to 15 years, he sees wind as a viable alternative for the majority of power.

“I am not advocating shutting down the power plant. I never have been. But a company that’s poisoning its neighbors should be held to standards as much as humanely possible. Lax monitoring is an abomination,” he said.

The tentative date for Zak’s appeal is Tuesday, March 10, and the Sierra Club is encouraging visible support on that date from anyone interested. The hearing will take place in the DNREC auditorium at 89 Kings Highway, Dover.