Green Scene: When the dust settles

About 50 Western North Carolina residents made the trek to Charlotte Sept. 14 for a public hearing to consider whether coal ash (produced when coal is burned to generate electricity) should be regulated as hazardous waste.

The hearing was one of eight being held nationwide by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as it considers — for the third time — whether coal ash should continue to be treated as the equivalent of household garbage or if it requires much more stringent containment and disposal rules.

For neighbors of the Progress Energy plant in Skyland, the question can’t be settled soon enough. Coal ash contains potentially dangerous pollutants including mercury, lead and arsenic. Some are known carcinogens; others are linked to birth defects and learning disabilities. And though the scrubbers Progress Energy installed on its smokestacks in 2005 capture up to 93 percent of the combustion products generated, residents of the adjacent communities say they’ve battled the dust drifting in their windows and accumulating on their cars and houses for years.

“I knew the plant was here when my parents died and I bought the property,” says Fisher Mill Road resident Nancy Jervis. “We wouldn’t have bought the place if we’d known the ash would be such a problem. I can show you my windowsills covered with ash.” And Tiffany Banks says she never opens her windows, because too much ash gets into her Lake Julian Trails home.

Maurice Herzberg, who says ashy dust constantly accumulates on his property, also attended the Charlotte hearing. “We need the electricity, but this stuff needs to be controlled,” he told Xpress afterward. Without robust regulations, he argues, “Big money gets what it wants — that’s what it boils down to. That’s how the system works.”

Local environmental groups say all area residents should be concerned about the issue, since the Skyland plant stores coal-ash waste in two large, open ponds (one is now inactive) held back by earthen dams, in close proximity to Interstate 26 and the French Broad River. A dam failure here like the massive spill at the TVA power plant in Kingston, Tenn., in December 2008 would be catastrophic, they say (see “The Green Scene,” Jan. 14, 2009 Xpress).

The Kingston spill changed the coal-fired-power industry forever, says Scott Sutton of Progress Energy. “The magnitude of the disaster at TVA reinforced that if these things are not properly managed, that is not good for the environment,” he adds, noting that Progress Energy’s active pond above I-26 has a maximum capacity of 450 million gallons of coal-ash waste — considerably less than the roughly 1.1 billion gallons believed to have been released in the TVA dam rupture. But while the Tennessee disaster is widely understood to be the impetus for the EPA’s revisiting the issue, not everyone at the Charlotte hearing supported regulating coal ash as a hazardous substance.

Manufacturers of products containing coal ash worry about how consumers might react if the material were declared hazardous. Coal ash is currently an ingredient in everything from bowling balls to topsoil to wallboard and concrete; it’s also used as fill at construction sites.

At the Charlotte hearing, representatives of these industries and utility officials squared off against environmentalists and concerned citizens, who outnumbered the industry reps by a roughly 3-to-2 ratio. An alternative proposal would not treat the waste as hazardous and would simply offer disposal guidelines for utilities and state regulators.

In fact, the EPA actually encourages such reuse if   it captures the waste in an inert and stable form. Coal ash trapped as an ingredient in asphalt has a much harder time finding its way into rivers and streams while giving utilities an outlet for the waste they produce, the agency maintains.

But the EPA also points out that other industries have overcome the potential stigma of a “hazardous” label. Consumers haven’t run from using products like computers and house paint made with potentially hazardous materials, especially when guidelines for proper use and disposal are spelled out.

According to EPA estimates, regulating coal ash as hazardous waste would cost $20.3 billion per year versus $8.1 billion if it weren’t considered hazardous. But the more stringent rules, the agency notes, would save an estimated $290 billion in annual health-care costs.

And though the jury is still out, in Nancy Jervis’ mind, the proper course is clear: “It needs to be regulated to where it’s not running into the water, the wells or the air.”

The EPA is accepting public comment on the proposed coal-ash rule through Friday, Nov. 19. To comment via U.S. mail, fax or e-mail, go to http://bit.ly/cNLftL. The easiest way to pre-register to speak at the Oct. 27 public hearing in Knoxville is via www.waterkeeper.org/CoalAsh (must be done at least three days in advance).

— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or sandrew@mountainx.com.

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