The Cost of Regulating Coal Ash in Wisconsin

(Milwaukee News 7-2-2010) New regulations for the disposing of coal ash proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency are likely to increase costs for utilities in Wisconsin, which are particularly dependent on coal – and those costs are expected to be passed on to consumers. The regulations may also make it more difficult for Milwaukee’s utility, WE Energies, to sell the ash, which is a byproduct of the coal burning process. It’s successfully marketed this waste product to concrete, cement and wallboard manufacturers.
The EPA’s proposal was released last month and comments are being accepted until September 20. It proposed two sets of rules – one to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste and another to categorize it as a type of solid waste, a classification also used for household garbage. If the EPA decides to classify the waste as “hazardous,” it would oversee its regulation. If not, the agency would only mandate a set of minimum national standards and leave it up to state governments and citizens’ groups to enforce them.
Both options proposed would add to the costs of operating Wisconsin’s 14 coal-powered power plants. The federally-controlled option would cost a total of $1.5 billion with coal users and the federal government sharing most of the cost, EPA estimates. The state option would cost only about $600 nationwide with coal users and state government carrying the burden. Under both plans, the vast majority of costs would fall to the utilities themselves – costs the EPA says it expects will be passed onto consumers.
When coal is burned for electricity, the leftovers are called “coal combustion residuals.” There are four kinds: fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag and gypsum sludge. Coal ash is not harmful to touch, but it’s dangerous to ingest. It contains hazardous heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury that can cause cancer and other health problems.
Like other utilities across the country, WE Energies favors the state-run option.  Under it, coal ash would be treated as trash but with a few added regulations. Both the state and federal options would require that protective liners be added to the slurry ponds and landfills that hold coal ash, but the stricter federal option would require more groundwater testing and the eventual elimination of such ponds in favor of dry landfills.
One such pond, called an “impoundment,” broke in Tennessee in 2008, causing the coal ash mud inside to flood about 3,000 acres. The spill prompted the new rules the EPA is proposing. Environmental groups have long called for rules to regulate coal ash. Its heavy metals, they argue, can leech into groundwater.
Clean Wisconsin, an environmental lobby group, is hoping for the stricter federal option. “With the safety of our drinking water and the health of our families at stake, it’s important for the EPA to pass the strongest measures possible,” it says. According to the group, despite recycling efforts, there are still 18 coal ash ponds in the state.
Most utilities, including WE Energies, prefer the state option. The Wisconsin utility worries that labeling coal ash as hazardous would leave a bad taste left in the mouths of its buyers and threaten an easy (and profitable) way for the company to dispose of the waste. “No doubt, anything labeled hazardous would create a stigma,” says Bruce Ramme, WE Energies land quality manager.
The EPA currently approves of what it calls “beneficial uses” of coal ash – such as a material for mixing concrete cement, making drywall or fertilizing farm crops. EPA’s proposal explains, “We do not want to place any unnecessary barriers on the beneficial uses of coal combustion wastes so they can be used in applications that conserve natural resources and reduce disposal costs.” Using the ash in cement, for example, reduces the need to mine for cement-making materials.
Environmental groups have objected to using fly ash, the most dangerous form of coal ash, on crops, saying the dangerous heavy metals it contains are being absorbed by food. The EPA is studying the recycling of coal ash and could later propose national rules for it. Many states, including Wisconsin, have already adopted their own rules.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a program to test coal ash that’s recycled for high levels of dangerous chemicals. Phillip Fauble, DNR beneficial use coordinator, says the agency isn’t yet sure how the proposed regulations could affect the testing it already does. “We have a good program, but other states, I suspect, do not,” he says.
An Indiana State University study completed in 2004 found that basil and zucchini plants grown in soil mixed with fly ash had arsenic levels considered toxic.
While fly ash, which is the airborne ash released when coal is burned, isn’t used on Wisconsin farms, they do use gypsum. Gypsum is normally mined for a variety of uses. According to Fauble, the gypsum that comes from power plants is as safe or safer than mined gypsum.
Fly ash, the most hazardous form of coal ash, is used on Wisconsin road projects. Recent projects on Interstate 43 and Brown Deer Road in Milwaukee used a total of 5,500 tons of fly ash.
Don Huff, the director of environmental affairs for La Crosse’s Dairyland Power Cooperative, says his utility also favors the state option, partly so its ash reuse programs won’t be threatened. “We prefer the non-hazardous proposal. We also recycle most of our ash in different types of beneficial reuse options, so we think that proposed option gives us the best way to continue to do that.”
WE Energies and other Wisconsin utilities sell almost all of their coal ash every year. In 2009 alone, WE Energies sold 645,000 tons. Despite the testing requirements, the DNR doesn’t require utilities to report where all this coal ash goes. WE Energies says, however, that it provides the information anyway.
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