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State Readies Rogers City Coal Ash Hearing

National push builds for new federal storage rules

January 25, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Credit Center for Public Integrity
  Coal ash fills slurry ponds and dry landfills nationwide.
Rogers City resident Joseph Veselenak likes to tell how, decades ago, the school’s football team showed up for practice one day and encountered a bizarre sight.

A goal post was tilting crazily: One end of it was literally sinking into the ground.

Mr. Veselenak, who coached Rogers City football in the late 1960s and through the ‘70s, immediately knew what the problem was. The goal post was slowly being swallowed by a rare form of geology that is actually quite common in Presque Isle County, where Rogers City is located: a blend of highly porous limestone, sinkholes, and underground caves, streams, and aquifers known collectively as “karst geology.”

“It's all limestone underneath the football field,” the coach said of the formation that almost ate his goal post, “and every spring it would heave up. There were shallow areas there where it sunk down one year, humps up the next. And one year the left side of the goal post was higher than the right side.”

Now state regulators must decide whether it’s a good idea to allow a utility to feed between a half-million and one million tons a year of toxic coal, petroleum-coke, and wood ash into a proposed landfill sited in the midst of Presque Isle karst. That company, Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, wants to build a solid-fuel-fired power plant at the bottom of the gigantic limestone quarry next to Rogers City, and bury the plant’s boiler ash in there, too, near the Lake Huron shoreline just outside of town.

The Michigan Public Service Commission has already determined that Wolverine does not need to build the new plant because of the state’s plentiful supply of electricity. But on Wednesday evening, January 27, at 6:30, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment will hold a public hearing at Rogers City High School about the coal ash landfill permit request.

Mr. Veselenak and others plan to tell state regulators that MDNRE should not allow coal waste to be buried anywhere near their county’s fragile and porous karst geology— particularly in a still-active limestone quarry, where years of blasting has repeatedly shattered underlying layers of rock, sand, water, and other material.

The landfill permitting process—which Wolverine is pushing to complete five years before it could possibly use the facility—comes as citizen organizations across the country, spurred by new research and events, are urging the federal government to install the nation’s first-ever national regulations for coal combustion waste. They want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to keep its promise, made last year, to propose new rules for coal slurry ponds, like one that collapsed in Tennessee, as well as for “dry” storage sites, like the one Wolverine proposes.

Given the sheer amount of Wolverine’s ash, the list of toxic chemicals it would contain, growing evidence being presented to Congress and the U.S. E.P.A. that it is harmful, the long lead time before any plant is built, and now-overdue new federal regulations on coal ash storage, landfill opponents say the state should do nothing before Washington acts.

In fact, tomorrow’s hearing occurs the day before a “national day of action” directs public pressure at U.S. E.P.A. to act quickly on stronger regulations for both wet and dry coal ash storage.

Karst and Capacity Considerations
As the news service reported in early December, a former Department of Natural Resources official warned local officials almost 20 years ago that, with 284,000 acres of karst geology in Presque Isle and adjacent Alpena Counties, residents must think twice before building any sort of waste landfill in the quarry—a gigantic if not continuous piece of karst geology.

Other experts weighed in as well, and the article also cited a U.S. E.P.A. manual, Groundwater Monitoring in Karst Terrain, that strongly cautions against burying waste among karst formations.

But John Orzaga, a MDNRE official, indicated last fall to the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners that Wolverine would build the least expensive and protective kind of landfill in the quarry, known as Type III. Such facilities typically receive tree stumps, bricks, or other toxic-free rubble. Currently, Michigan law does not view coal ash as toxic.

That has prompted some Wolverine opponents to argue that, if there is to be an ash landfill in the quarry, or anywhere else in karst-laced Presque Isle County, it should meet the higher, Type II standards designed to manage contaminated municipal waste.

Wolverine, which routinely refuses to comment for stories reported by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, may be reluctant to install a more elaborate landfill because their more advanced linings and leachate removal and monitoring systems are also more expensive.

Meanwhile, an attorney for the non-profit Environmental Law and Policy Center, Meleah Gertsma, said in a letter to Presque Isle County officials several months ago that the co-op has not adequately documented how it will collect the toxic “leachate” that will run off the coal ash pile when it rains.

“It is our understanding that Wolverine intends to reuse the leachate in the (coal plant’s) powerhouse,” Ms. Gertsma wrote. “If Wolverine intends to combust the leachate in the boiler itself, high levels of toxic air emissions are likely to result and require a revision to the air permit application. Such emissions are not consistent with the goal of protecting air quality and public health.”

There are also significant questions about whether Wolverine’s proposal is large enough to handle the huge volumes of coal ash its plant would produce. The company says that its ash flow would fill the county’s existing municipal landfill in just five years. The company says its proposed landfill could hold 20 years worth of coal ash.

Attorney Gertsma said that is a real problem, too.

“[The plant] will exist for decades to come, and thus must have a landfill facility whose life expectancy matches that of the waste stream,” she wrote. “Coal plants typically have a life expectancy of fifty or more years. As such, the proposed facility should be proven to protect against leaks for at least fifty years as well.”

Opponent say a 20-year capacity indicates that Wolverine plans to sell some of the coal ash to road crews in for highway construction—a so-called “beneficial use” that may soon come under E.PA.’s microscope. The practice, some locals say, would be risky in Presque Isle and Alpena Counties because they are so pockmarked with karst, which provides a highly porous path to freshwater aquifers, lakes, and wells.

Another possibility—selling the ash directly to a cement manufacturer in Alpena—raise the specter of an endless line of dusty 18-wheelers traveling up and down U.S. 23.

Feds May Act Soon
The event that pushed coal ash storage into the federal spotlight took place a little more than a year ago, when a levy for a massive Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash storage pond burst. It released millions of tons of toxic sludge—far more than the notorious Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska—into a 400-acre stretch of river and wildlife. The sludge crushed everything in its path and poisoned the river for miles downstream.

The disaster—and the lack of strong state or federal coal ash regulation that it revealed—attracted coverage by the CBS News show 60 Minutes, which presented a devastating in-depth report on the subject.

Wolverine officials are quick to point out that they are not proposing a slurry pond and that they would store ash in a dry, clay-lined, drained container. But Wolverine’s opponents warn of damage that would be far more subtle and long lasting than what occurred in Tennessee, and just as troubling: lasting harm to local aquifers, drinking water, lakes, and rivers.

Coal ash contains arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, and thallium—all toxic to humans. Earlier this month, five scientists wrote to the U.S. E.P.A., noting that coal ash contains toxics and should be closely regulated.

The scientists researched the effect of coal waste leachate on wildlife, and said their findings were troubling.

“Fish and wildlife are being poisoned by the toxic leachate from coal combustion waste,” they wrote. “The more we look, the more cases we find.

“The facts speak for themselves,” they said. “Some of the most destructive and pressing environmental problems with coal combustion waste are not ‘in the distant past,’ but are taking place now using ‘state approved’ disposal practices. Threats and impacts are not being addressed by the coal power industry and they will not go away.”

Grist magazine, meanwhile, reports that the amount of coal ash produced in the United States alone is colossal, noting the the 136 million tons of coal ash waste generated annually here is more than enough to fill the boxcars of a train stretching from Washington, D.C., to Melbourne, Australia.

Coal industry lobbyists’ Congressional allies are pushing back hard. A group of congressmen recently wrote the Obama administration, claiming that coal ash was not toxic and that its regulation would cost American jobs. The move parallels a similar one by two U.S. senators who recently tried to prevent EPA from regulating the CO2 emissions that are accelerating worldwide climate change.

That push has so far failed, and Lee Sprague, clean energy campaign manager for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, believes that Wolverine is moving so aggressively because it sees new federal regulations coming.

"They are desperately trying to get their coal ash permits approved before new rules are in place," Mr. Sprague recently told The Detroit News.

Former Coach Vaselenak does not think much of Wolverine’s rush for a permit, nor the assurances of the experts the firm hired to study the geology of the proposed landfill site at the bottom of the quarry.

“I'm scared,” he said. “I don't care how many geologists Wolverine has—I don't think they understand how unpredictable limestone is. That's not a place to put it. I'm thinking about our kids, and our future generation.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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