Tennessee coal-ash spill elevates concerns

With news of one of the nation’s largest-ever coal-ash spills in Tennessee last week, it’s only natural that local residents are thinking about the repercussions should something similar happen in Sussex County. As residents and property owners along the river and lake there push for a recovery plan and deal with concerns about contamination of their land, air and water with arsenic, mercury and other hazardous materials, the incident only serves to increase worry in coastal Delaware about the potential impact of local coal-ash storage sites.

Coal-ash storage at the Indian River Power Plant in Millsboro, owned by NRG, was in the news quite a bit this past year. Despite the public’s expressed concerns about the dangers of the existing fly-ash landfills at the site, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) held hearings about the permitting of a new coal fly-ash landfill there and finally approved the Phase II site in October 2008.

That approval came on the heels of a May 29 hearing at which the public had a chance to hear about the DNREC’s proposed plan for remedial action for the Burton’s Island Ash Landfill in Millsboro, where ash from the Indian River Power Plant has been disposed of for many years.

The Burton’s Island Ash Landfill is a 144-acre site on the premises of the Indian River Generating Station (IRGS) and consists of three areas DNREC calls Operable Units (OUs). OU1 is at the shoreline; OU2 is the landfill/disposal area itself, and OU3 is offshore, comprising the sub-tidal sediments and the waters outside of the footprint of the erosion-control project.

At that May meeting, residents were united in their message that the clean-up plan was inadequate and the state should look into permanently getting rid of the ash pile because of the many contaminants – including arsenic and mercury – and related health risks.

Naturopath Kim Furtado was one local resident who stressed the potential public health repercussions of the old ash-landfill site.

“While you claim to not have found heavy metals in soil tests, this is not adequate to prove there is no harm or risk to our community posed by Burton’s Island’s landfill,” she said. “The public health department has been informed that, in my clinical practice, I have been testing for heavy metals and finding what I suspect are significant elevations in local patients who have lived in this community for about eight years or more.

“Instead of requiring us to prove that the heavy metals are harming us,” she said “…Epidemiological data (although limited) has established a cancer cluster in the vicinity surrounding this pollution source,” she noted. “An environmental link has not been established officially due to poor design of data collection and refusal from the Department of Public Health to investigate any environmental hypotheses. Yet, there are significant risks to unlined fly-ash pits, and you have evidence of this one being compromised.

“Harm to the local population has not been outright proven to be connected to fly-ash contamination nor the significant air pollution,” she acknowledged. “However, significant data exist which indicate that a harm within the community is happening. Disease patterns indicate there is no plausible way that ‘proof of no harm’ has been achieved,” she said, referencing patterns of infant deaths, cancer, heart disease and autism.

“Do not fail to protect this community,” she urged DNREC officials. “Your role is not to save NRG money, as they try to operate this plant with as few expenditures as possible, at our expense. Burton’s Island’s remedial actions, as planned, are horribly inadequate, and it is a deep failure regarding your public health protection responsibilities.”

Fellow opponent John Austin added, “It is up to DNREC to require actions to abate the unacceptable risks presented by the Burton’s Island site, and this plan fails to do so.”

For current coal fly-ash disposal, NRG operates a Phase I landfill. In June DNREC held the initial hearing regarding NRG’s application for permitting a new landfill, because capacity at the present one will be used up by next year.

In 2007, 139,372 tons of coal ash was disposed in the Phase I landfill. The Phase II landfill NRG applied for will be placed adjacent to the existing Phase I landfill. Residents were opposed to the permitting of this second landfill because of the same concerns they had over the now not-in-use Burton’s Island landfill – contamination into groundwater, risks of mercury and arsenic contamination, and other health and environmental concerns.

The Phase II landfill will encompass 28 acres and will have 2 millions cubic yards, or eight years’ worth, of capacity. The existing Phase I landfill will be maxed out within the year.

According to NRG spokesperson and maintenance manager Dave Burton, NRG (formerly Delmarva Power) provides electricity to 750,000 homes, employs 175 local people and has 784 megawatt of power generated at the plant.

Per state procedural rules, the hearing was requested by a concerned citizen – Austin, of Rehoboth Beach, who recommended June 26 that the permit be denied. Every speaker after him agreed. He said he would like coal fly-ash to be designated as a hazardous waste.

“To comply with the Delaware Code Title 7 Section 1300, Waste Management, hazardous waste disposal can only be located in areas where air and water degradation is minimal, not near the Indian River Bay,” he said.

Unknowingly mirroring the circumstances of last week’s event in Tennessee, Austin went on to say that, because of the proximity of Island Creek and Indian River, “We could lose everything if there was a catastrophic flood or rainfall.’

Austin said a fly-ash landfill should not be located near a flood zone and that the groundwater should be 5 feet below the bottom liner of the landfill. Underlying groundwater at the site, he said, is only 3 to 4 feet below, which would not meet the standard.

“The code states that no landfill should be placed in an environmentally sensitive area. It’s entirely within the Coastal Zone Act. If they aren’t referring to land within the Coastal Zone Act, then I would think those words have no meaning,” he said.

He reiterated that coal fly-ash is not currently designated as hazardous waste.

“When the (existing) landfill was put in in 1976, it was contingent on showing that it was not harmful. Time has shown the prior decision for a landfill here was wrong. Arsenic is a known carcinogen, which is not officially linked to the cancer cluster, but I can put two and two together. Can I prove it? No.”

Regardless of the hearing and the many other speakers that followed Austin in opposition to the landfills, DNREC approved the second Phase II landfill in October.

After that approval was granted, the Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC) of the Center for Inland Bays (CIB) resolved to appeal to DNREC about the permitting of the site, through the CIB board of directors. The board, however, decided not to appeal but rather to soften its suggestions to DNREC out of concern for their working relationship.

The CAC resolution proposed that the “Phase II coal ash landfill permit be issued for no more than five years and be subject to the following conditions: DNREC require NRG to remove the Delmarva landfill, or remediate the landfill using a scientifically and technologically better procedure, and transport all coal ash out of the inland bays; DNREC require NRG to promptly begin the removal and transport out of the watershed all of the coal ash from the Phase I landfill; NRG be prohibited from bringing coal ash from their Dover plant to any of the Indian River Generation Station landfills.”

Though CIB board member Dr. Bill McGowan commended both the CAC and the scientists at DNREC for their work, he noted that the resolution, as proposed, was not consistent with operational strategies of other national estuary programs and the board’s responsibility for monitoring the effectiveness of all actions. He instead made a motion that requested DNREC coordinate with the CIB to determine feasibility of the resolution, without putting them under a specific timeframe.

“We need to look at this on a long-term basis,” he said.

That specific motion read “…As such, the Board of Directors has determined that Secretary’s Order No. 2008-A-0037 appears to be inconsistent with the goals and objectives of the state-adopted Inland Bays CCMP. Furthermore, the Board requests that the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control coordinate with CIB a long-term approach for addressing the impacts from fly-ash landfills at Indian River Generating Station and determine the feasibility of possible remediation or removal of the fly ash deposited there.”

“So does that mean we are no longer putting them under a timeframe?” asked board member and Sussex County Administrator David Baker, to which he received an affirmative response.

In December, the Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) of the Center for Inland Bays heard from Executive Director of the American Coal Ash Association David Gross, who spoke about the possibility of either selling or giving away coal combustion products, or fly ash, created by the coal-fired power plants in the area. The CCPs, he said, can be used in everything from Portland cement and wallboard manufacturing to green roofs and countertops. He mentioned that LEED and other “green” building councils award points for CCPs’ use in construction projects.

When asked by Dr. Richard Adams about the particle size and the risks of breathing the recycled materials, Gross said he didn’t know off-hand and would get an answer. Admas and Richard Gallagher attended the June DNREC hearing and had noted that, depending on the type of coal and where it comes from, it could go right through the membrane NRG had planned to use as a liner at the landfill and could go into the area’s water supply.

NRG and other coal-fired plants have recently been in the news again – this time on the opinion page. Alan Mueller of Green Delaware, an environmental advocacy group, responded to an article titled “Potential for recycled coal ash expands.”

“Yes, coal ash is sometimes recycled,” he wrote. “But this is seldom wise as the ash contains numerous toxic and radioactive materials including arsenic, mercury and uranium. These tend to be much more concentrated in the ash than in the original coal. Coal ash recycling has caused air pollution, groundwater contamination and damage to human health.

“As mentioned in the article, for example, coal ash can be added to cement. Not mentioned is that doing so greatly increases the mercury emissions from cement plants. Worse, DNREC has shown a willingness to allow flagrantly irresponsible recycling or so-called beneficial reuse. … The push for recycling of NRG’s Indian River power plant coal ash really only serves the interests of those who want to save money regardless of the cost to human health and the environment.”

State Reps. Gerlad Hocker (R-38th) and John Atkins (D-41st) and Sen. George Bunting (D-20th) recently wrote about the strides NRG has made since taking over the plant and the realities of the need for coal-fired plants.

“…Earlier this month, NRG finished the installation of an Activated Carbon Injection (ACI) system on all four generating units at the Indian River plant, east of Millsboro. We were proud to be among those who were on hand to officially start this state-of-the-art technology. According to the company, the pollution-reduction system will reduce the facility’s mercury emissions by up to 80 percent,” they wrote.

“Indian River is also one of the few power plants in the nation to have installed continuous emissions monitors for mercury, allowing operators to track the effectiveness of the new system. … By January 2012, Indian River will be operating just two generating units, both of which will meet or exceed all state and federal requirements anticipated to be in affect at that time. The result will be a facility that will produce a fraction of the nitric oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury that was being released at the beginning of 2008.

“The development of clean and renewable sources of power, like Bluewater Wind’s offshore wind farm, need to move forward. But, until cheap, renewable energy is able to supplant the use of fossil fuels, we’ll need the inexpensive, reliable power by responsibly operated coal-fired plants like NRG’s Indian River facility.”

Regardless of the strides power plants are making, and how responsible they may be, “clean coal,” to many, is an oxymoron and something out of fairytales. The protections offered by liners, covers and containers, they say, do nothing more than satisfy already lax local regulations. Coal fly-ash is still a ticking time bomb, they argue – just ask the people in Harriman, Tenn.