Communities Uneasy As Utilities Look For Places To Store Coal Ash
Outside Susan Holmes' house in southeastern Oklahoma, visitors are welcomed by an entryway lined with oxygen bottles and a machine that collects and concentrates oxygen from the air.
"I take two inhalers twice a day," Holmes says. "And I have a nebulizer that I use four times a day, and I use oxygen at night."
She says her asthma returned when she moved to Bokoshe, a decaying town of about 500 people that is flanked by old coal mines. The huge pits have now been filled with hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash.
About 130 million tons of coal ash are produced every year. Power companies used to keep it in big, open holes called coal ash ponds. No lining was required to stop leakage, and no monitoring, to even know if it was leaking.
Then, in 2008, a ruptured dike spilled more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry from a pond operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considered classifying coal ash as "hazardous waste."
The utility industry lobbied hard — and successfully — to avoid the hazardous waste designation. So in 2014, EPA's new rules said coal ash was not hazardous.
Now, power companies must recycle the ash, store it more securely on site, or send the ash to landfills.
But in the towns where that ash is ending up, nobody is quite happy with those options.
Blowin' in the wind
The ash in Bokoshe comes from a coal-fired power plant down the road — up to 180 truckloads a day. Holmes says the powdery ash is no match for the Oklahoma wind.
"When it blows, it's like this huge cloud of dust," she says. "It gets on everything. If you were to go out and feel my car, the top of it feels like sandpaper."
Currently, there is little medical evidence for some residents' claims that coal ash has contributed to health problems. But the federal government recently funded a long-term study exploring the issue.
In 2014, 16 million tons of coal ash were used for what's known as minefill, and the numbers keep rising. It's now the main way the industry recycles the fossil fuel waste.
Mine-filling is considered a beneficial use for coal ash — and a success story for the industry. The Department of Interior oversees the practice and has yet to regulate it.
"That's certainly, I think, preferable than to just having these materials pile up in landfills," says Tom Adams of the American Coal Ash Association. "At the end of the day, if it creates a better situation when the mine is filled, I think you gotta consider that a benefit."
Not in my landfill
One such landfill is just outside Jesup, a town in southeast Georgia.
"If you want to store it somewhere, put it in the safest spot possible, which is what we do," says Ken Valihora, general manager of the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill.
The landfill has two layers of liners and monitoring wells, and it meets all EPA standards for handling coal ash. As with about 2,000 other landfills across the country, there's no permit and no public process required before it can start bringing in coal ash.
And the owners would like to bring in a lot of it.
"The permit was sized to assume we could take a full train a day," says David Remick, operations manager at the landfill. "About 90 to 100 cars. That maximum amount would be about 10,000 tons of waste."
That's 10,000 tons of coal ash per day.
Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says his preferred option is to see coal ash safely stored at the power plants.
Georgia Power, which is the biggest utility in the state, is doing that at about half of its plants. But if a landfill can show that it'll securely store coal ash, Holleman says that's better than where it is now.
"Get it out of these dangerous, unlined pits," Holleman says. "Put it in safe dry lined storage, away from the waterways."
But the plan for the Jesup landfill is not going over well with locals.
Wayne County Commissioner Ralph Hickox doesn't like the idea of trains bringing in waste from out of state.
"I don't want to become the nation's dump," Hickox says. "We didn't create the coal ash here; I don't want the coal ash here."
This is not just a "not-in-my-backyard" issue, says Peggy Riggins, a retired high school teacher-turned-activist. Riggins, who has been recruiting locals to her organization No Ash At All, says she's also concerned about the effect the coal ash could have on streams and a nearby river.
Sure, she agrees that how coal ash has previously been stored is an issue.
"But you don't fix a problem by creating another problem," Riggins says.
'From the top down'
The waste management industry, however, sees itself as a part of the solution.
"We do have to reassure the public that we, as waste management people, know how to run landfills," says Anne Germain of the National Waste and Recycling Association.
In Bokoshe, Okla., officials say the pit operator is complying with pollution rules, though it has received multiple regulatory reprimands and corrective orders over the years.
Still, residents like Dub Tolbert maintain the community is left exposed. He says he's determined to make regulators listen.
"It starts from the top down," Tolbert says, speaking at an American Legion post with a group of townspeople. "Our governor, our congressmen — all of them. They protect that."
Opponents of the Jesup landfill are hiring lawyers and reviewing the county's contract with the landfill, but there's not actually much they can do.
There are some signs that government officials are getting more concerned about coal ash. The Oklahoma State Department of Health recently pledged to investigate cancer rates in Bokoshe.
And the Department of Interior says it is writing a new rule on minefilling, to be released by the end of the year. That will set up a whole new fight over coal waste regulations.
"We're not going to sit over here and let that stuff blow all over the country without telling somebody about it," Tolbert says. "We're going to aggravate somebody."
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