Liveblogging The Coal Ash Hearings - Charlotte

(Charlotte Business Journal 9-14-2010)
11:12 PM Update 
The EPA panel has closed the Charlotte coal ash hearing.
Suzanne Rudzinski, acting office director for the Office of Resource Conservation & Recovery, elaborated on an earlier comment about the turn-out today.
Charlotte had the highest number of sign-ups of hearings so far Rudzinski says, but the number of speakers in attendance dwindled as the night wore on.
The four-member EPA panel worked through lunch and dinner along with two court reporters that took turns transcribing the hundreds of comments since 10 a.m.
Next stop for the environmental regulators: Chicago.
10: 41 p.m. update
The hearing room is nearly empty and there’s no one speaking but the EPA officials are still here in case anyone shows up. At one point, an EPA panel member noted there had been more than 200 speakers. However, the turnout was still the lowest of the coal ash hearings thus far, he said.
After an hour -long lull, Gene Weston stepped in to speak on behalf of concrete makers and building material suppliers in the Sumter, S.C. area.
“We’ve never had an issue of anyone getting ill from concrete,” Weston said, then added, “We will not continue to use bottom ash if it’s classified as a hazardous waste.”
“It will still be on our roads and it will still take up landfill space,” he said.
9:25 p.m. update
The hearing room is nearly empty and there’s no one speaking but the EPA officials are still here in case anyone shows up.
Ah, I typed too soon. A woman from South Carolina just walked in to express concern about cancer risks from coal ash ponds.
8:14 p.m. update
Had another chat with environmental regulator Alexander Livnat from the EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, previously known as the Office of Solid Waste.
Livnat is one of a half-dozen federal officials on hand to hear all the comments from speakers today in Charlotte.
Livnat says that the EPA’s decision to hold eight hearings on the proposed rules is “unprecedented.” (Earlier this month, the EPA said it would hold one more hearing in Tennessee, the state where a massive coal ash spill sparked these federal regulatory coal ash proposals.)
But here’s bigger news: Livnat says to keep an eye out on a compromise proposal under discussion by several members of Congress.
That compromise could come by way of an amendment to the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act that could give the EPA the authority to regulate coal combustion residuals (CCRs), but without the need for the hazardous designation feared by business who re-use the materials.
According to the American Coal Ash Association's Coal Combustion Product Production & Use Survey Report, more than 136 million tons of CCRs were generated in 2008.
While the most commonly known coal combustion residual is coal ash, another type of CCR is synthetic gypsum, the same kind used at National Gypsum’s Mt. Holly drywall plant.
And, although CCRs contain heavy metals and other pollutants including arsenic, selenium, and cadmium, the EPA notes that the amounts that leach out “rarely reach the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste characteristic levels."
7:25 p.m. update
Back on. Catch up on last few hours of comments on Twitter by clicking here.
7:18 p.m. update
Recess for ten minutes. Room less than half-full, but no one left at moment still holding a number to speak. The EPA regulators here have listened to more than 150 speakers including walk-ins.
Recent speakers included David Merryman, Catawba Riverkeeper and Allen Stowe, Duke Energy Corp.
5:28 p.m. update
Those are cenospheres. Similar to sand granules, these hard, tiny balls of nitrogen and carbon dioxide are a by-product of coal combustion. In ash ponds, they float to the top while gravity pulls down the fly ash, which is as fine as talcum powder.
That’s how the ash ends up in surface basins like the ones above, which is at Riverbend Steam Station. Water is used to sluice the ash out of the plant and into the pond. That second basin in the back contains water that’s siphoned off from the front pond. Duke tests that water as its discharged into the Catawba River, adding CO2 as needed to balance the liquid’s pH factor.
Companies come in and sweep out the cenospheres which are then used in other applications, such as making plastics lighter and more durable.
One of the speakers today was Ryan Brownhill, an operations manager for Sphere One, Inc. based in Chattanooga, Tenn., a supplier of cenospehere obtained from coal plants.
And, of course, he’s one of those who spoke out against Subtitle C, which he says places too high a burden on business without a bigger environmental benefit.
Brownhill said just the possibility of the EPA designating coal combustion by-products as hazardous has hurt his business.
His company’s largest customer has already stated that it will not use their cenospheres if the EPA opts for Subtitle C, Brownhill said.
If that happens, its spells the end of Sphere One.
“We will not be able to continue as a viable operation,” he says.
2:40 p.m. update
About arsenic from coal ash ponds leaching in Charlotte’s drinking water…
Concerns over the toxin have been expressed by scores of speakers today.
That’s because Duke Energy releases about two pounds of arsenic over the course of a day into the Catawaba River from its Riverbend Steam Station. That’s the coal-fired plant that operates upstream from Mountain Island Lake, where the intake pipe for Charlotte’s water system is located.
Two pounds of arsenic. Per day.
As scary as that sounds, it’s key to keep it in context. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities tests raw, untreated water twice a year for arsenic. In 2009, arsenic was listed by Utilities on a list of “Substances Not Detected in Charlotteā€Mecklenburg Drinking Water."
Also testing for arsenic: Duke Energy.
Erin Culbert, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte energy giant (and formerly in a similar position with Utilities), says Duke samples water less than a third of a mile from where it discharges into the river.
Culbert says the company consistently see arsenic levels at about 1 part per billion, which is below the state surface water standard of 10 parts per billion.
To put that in perspective, imagine a billion white ping pong balls in Panthers stadium. Except one is painted red.
Culbert adds that water moves very quickly in the Catawba, and out of Mountain Island Lake, which is actually a reservoir that allows the river to flow through or over its dam.
“The amount of time that a drop of water is retained in Mountain Island Lake ranges from one to 12 days,” Culbert says. "The vast majority of arsenic and other trace elements leave the reservoir within a matter of a few days at concentrations that are not detectable."
Now, environmental groups say that’s not quite right because it doesn’t take into account results from testing groundwater samples at Mountain Island Lake, Lake Wylie and Lake Norman.
In October, environmental group Appalachian Voices released its “NC Coal Ash Pond Groundwater Contamination Analysis” that looked at testing for arsenic and other pollutants based on data submitted by Duke and Progress Energy in April 2009 to the NC Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources.
According to the report, “an analysis of ground water samples surrounding 13 coal ash ponds operated by Duke and Progress Energy revealed that all 13 ponds are leaking toxic heavy metals and other pollutants into the surrounding aquifer. Exceedances were found for arsenic, boron, cadmium, chloride, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, pH, sulfate, and total dissolved solids.”
However, the report only says that arsenic was detected in groundwater at Duke’s Belews, Lee and Sutton plants. All three plants had samples with arsenic that exceeded the state’s groundwater standard, the report states.
The pollutants found at the highest levels were the heavy metals lead and manganese, according to the report.
12:24 p.m. update
Spoke with Bobbie Shields, Mecklenburg County general manager. He’s been here all morning listening to comments at the coal ash hearing.
Shields says the county isn’t taking a position on the proposed regulations. Instead, he says in attendance for “information purposes” to get a feel for how the regulations might affect the local economy.
Shields had to leave for other county business by noon time but he says he’ll be using Twitter to keep up. There’s been several folks tweeting the proceedings. Check out the #coalash hashtag for more information.
Noon update
It’s been standing-room only all morning at the EPA coal ash hearing in Charlotte, with hundreds in attendance.
As expected, the first batch of speakers split support on the two types of regulation proposed by the EPA.
Advocates from environmental groups as well as concerned citizens stressed support of Subtitle C. Among those speaking were representatives from the local and state Sierra Club and the Mountain Island Lake Marine Commission.
Subtitle C allows for state and federal enforcement of fly ash and other by-products from the combustion process that creates electricity at coal-fired steam stations. All forms of storage including landfills would require permits. Basins (also known as ash ponds or surface impoundments) built before the rule is finalized would need to be retrofitted by a liner within five years, and eventually phased out.
And the materials would be deemed hazardous, which has been a key point of contention from companies that use the coal waste materials for other products including concrete, fertilizer and drywall.
Representatives from businesses that use the by-products from coal combustion have asked for acceptance of Subtitle D, arguing that the other set of rules would create a stigma that would devastate their industry and add costs to other products..
For example, Jane Arnold, executive-vice president of Southern Concrete Materials, said that her company would discontinue use of fly ash, which is an inexpensive substitute for cement. Southern Concrete has four plants in Charlotte and one in Concord.
Subtitle D allows for enforcement through citizen suits or by states. No permits would be required. But liners would be required as well as groundwater monitoring.
That’s not good enough for many like Alice Battle.
“Their self monitoring is what has contaminated the waterways in the first place,” says Battle, the lakekeeper for Mountain Island Lake, the source of most of Charlotte’s drinking water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will host a marathon 13-hour coal ash hearing at the Holiday Inn Charlotte Airport hotel today.
Coal ash is the leftover residue from the combustion of coal. Utilities typically dispose of it in ponds or landfills. The EPA says the ash contains mercury, cadmium and arsenic — contaminants associated with cancer and other illnesses. The federal agency is concerned those pollutants could leach into groundwater and drinking-water sources.
Duke Energy Corp. has 13 coal-ash retention ponds in the Carolinas. Ten are on the EPA’s list of 44 potentially high-hazard sites across the country. The Charlotte-based energy giant has said cleaning up the ash ponds at its coal plants would cost hundreds of millions of dollars depending on how the new rules are structured.
The EPA is proposing two different ways of regulating coal ash from power plants.
Environmental activists are pushing for Subtitle C, which would designate leftover materials from coal combustion as hazardous, thus giving the EPA direct authority for enforcing rules on its handling and disposal. Subtitle D is favored by businesses that process and re-use the waste materials in products such as concrete.
The speakers today have been allotted 15-minute slots to make comments. Click here to see the schedule of who’s making comments and when, starting at 10:15 a.m. The last speaker is slated for 11:30 p.m.
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