Ruling Could Pollute Drinking Water State-Wide
EPA opens door to reuse of coal ash, despite evidence it's contaminating wells in Wisconsin.
By: Ron Seely, Kate Golden, Rachael Lallensack, Cole Monka and Daniel McKay
It’s not a good sign when even the dogs won’t drink your tap water.
“They sniff it and then drink the bottled water we pour,” said Frank Michna of Caledonia, one of hundreds of southeastern Wisconsin residents whose wells are contaminated by pollutants that may be coming from buried coal ash.
Michna’s well is tainted by boron and molybdenum. Molybdenum is a naturally occurring metal that can cause health problems such as gout, a complex and painful form of arthritis, if ingested at high levels. The chemical boron, also naturally occurring, has been shown to cause digestive problems and harm male reproductive organs.
The source of these and other contaminants in the wells could be coal ash from We Energies’ power plants, according to a study released in November by Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group. Much of the ash has been used as fill in construction projects under a program called “beneficial reuse,” endorsed by the state and federal government.
And it appears that Michna’s predicament in southeastern Wisconsin could be shared by other well owners throughout the state. The EPA has confirmed 157 cases of proven or potential damage from coal ash, including 14 in Wisconsin, and says more will likely be discovered as required groundwater monitoring systems are installed.
In a long-awaited ruling, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 19 labeled coal ash as nonhazardous waste, on the same level as household trash, and established stricter guidelines for disposal and monitoring of ash.
Ann Coakley, director of waste and materials management for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the state’s beneficial use rule, passed in 1985 and praised in the new federal coal ash regulations, puts Wisconsin ahead of states such as Tennessee and Kentucky that have weaker rules.
“For us, we already regulate coal ash as a solid waste,” Coakley said. “This will not be a big change for us.”
The federal rule was largely sparked by the failure of large coal ash storage ponds, especially in southern states. But the rule has implications for Wisconsin because of the volume of ash that is used in construction projects. Those uses will continue to be allowed under the new rule, Coakley said, though there may be some additional restrictions on weight and other aspects of use in building and road construction.
Yet Wisconsin’s contaminated wells raise the possibility that the ash can be far from benign.
In 2011, Clean Wisconsin found, large coal plants produced nearly 1.8 million tons of coal ash. Typically, 85 percent of the ash goes to beneficial reuse, making Wisconsin’s reuse rate the highest in the nation.
Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin, said the group focused its study on southeastern Wisconsin because of the availability of data. But coal ash is everywhere, he added, and so may be pollution from that ash.
“There’s no reason to think that it is limited to that area,” Cook said. “It just happened to be where we were looking. In fact, we know that utilities across the state have been selling or giving away their coal ash for these types of uses.”
Coal ash varies a lot. It may be fly ash, fine, gray, talcum-powdery particles that rise with exhaust gases and are captured in chimneys; bottom ash, dark gray leftover material that collects in the furnace; boiler slag, a crystalline material from molten bottom ash and also known as “black beauty”; or sludge, a solid material that forms in a furnace when scrubbers remove sulfur dioxide from exhaust.
The ash is used for concrete, asphalt, wallboard and construction fill in buildings and highways. Contaminants from loose, or unencapsulated, ash can more easily leach into groundwater. In its new rule, the EPA cited the potential risk of using unencapsulated ash but stopped short of requiring more regulation of such uses.