Questions in Joliet Area About Coal-Ash Threat

Posted: 11/11/2010

From The New York Times:

The blue house is small and weathered, but for Leon Bilbrew, it is his castle. His hunting dogs are in cages in the yard, and the walls inside his Joliet home are lined with pelts of beaver, albino raccoon and skunk that he has trapped. He keeps beehives and sells the honey at farmers markets.

Mr. Bilbrew has lived here for almost four decades, after leaving Canton, Miss., at age 18 in search of opportunities up North.

He attended culinary arts school and worked as a chef until he was sidelined by a stroke three years ago. He has lived alone since the 1980s, when his wife moved with their six children to California, and he is content with his life.

But now every time he takes a drink from the tap or looks across the street at a gaping hole filled with black sludge, he worries that the way he lives could be in jeopardy. Beyond the pit are the three smokestacks and towering coal piles of a power plant owned by Midwest Generation.

The pit, a former limestone quarry, stores ash from the bottom of the boiler where coal is burned to produce electricity. The ash has mixed with standing groundwater, forming a thick black slush. The quarry was there when Mr. Bilbrew moved in, but he hardly gave it a second thought until last summer, when Tammy Thompson, a local environmental activist, and Sierra Club organizers warned him about the potential of contaminants leaching from the pit into the groundwater that supplies his well.

Burning coal produces several kinds of ash and other byproducts collectively referred to as coal ash. Nearly half the 136 million tons of coal ash generated nationwide in 2008 was used in concrete, roofing shingles, asphalt, bricks and other construction materials, according to the American Coal Ash Association.

"There are places in your house you can literally reach out and touch these materials," said Thomas Adams, executive director of the association.
Coal ash is also a crucial component in particularly strong and water-resistant concrete, like that used to repave the Dan Ryan Expressway, or in bridges and dams, said Lloyd Meyer, vice president of Ozinga Ready Mix Chicago, one of the area's largest concrete companies.

The coal ash that is not sold is stored in above-ground ponds or in below-ground landfills or pits, like Midwest Generation's quarry, usually without liners. There are no federal regulations that specifically govern coal-ash disposal, but that will probably change.

After a barrier burst just before Christmas 2008 near Kingston, Tenn., and allowed toxic coal-ash slurry to flood a wide area, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency decided that coal-ash disposal should be regulated. The agency is seeking public comment on two possible designations for coal ash that would require new safeguards on its disposal, including phasing out above-ground ponds and requiring liners for all new landfills.

The less stringent of the two proposed regulations would entail little government oversight, leaving it to citizens to file lawsuits if they suspect violations. The other would designate coal ash a hazardous waste and mandate government oversight of its transport and disposal.

Coal ash includes heavy metals and other potentially harmful compounds, including arsenic, lead, copper and cadmium. When the ash is dry and bound into building materials like concrete, it poses no risk, according to the E.P.A., but it is toxic if it gets into the air or water in significant amounts.

Mrs. Thompson and Mr. Bilbrew were among the hundreds of people who attended a hearing in September in Chicago - one of eight nationwide - at which the E.P.A. took testimony on the proposed rules. Residents and environmental groups pleaded for the hazardous-waste designation. Representatives of the coal and construction industries argued that such a move could severely limit reuse of coal ash.

The E.P.A. has stipulated that even the more stringent regulation would still allow reuse. But industry officials said their businesses would suffer because consumers would not want something labeled as hazardous waste in their walls, roofs and roads.

"It would be very easy for a lawyer of even average abilities to connect the dots and cause some real serious tort problems for the industry," said Barry McNulty, spokesman for the Wisconsin power company We Energies, which has a coal-ash landfill near Milwaukee.
Mr. Meyer, of Ozinga Ready Mix Chicago, said that concrete makers use fly ash in place of cement, which is made in a "nasty, nasty process" of baking limestone in massive kilns.
"Cement factories generate a lot of greenhouse gases," he said. But by using coal ash, "a waste product that we have anyway and making it inert in concrete, we are able to use less cement and generate less greenhouse gases."

Maria Race, director of environmental programs for Midwest Generation, said the hazardous-waste designation would significantly increase the cost of doing business, because the company would lose income from selling coal ash and have to pay for its disposal. The rule would also probably require Midwest Generation to make upgrades to its coal-ash pit in Joliet.

Midwest Generation dug new or deeper wells for 17 homes near the pit as a precaution after the pumping of water in a nearby quarry lowered the water table and raised fears of contamination. The company tested a well near Mr. Bilbrew's home and found no contamination, said Charley Parnell, a spokesman.

The company also bought a quarry next to its pit to prevent another owner from pumping it dry, which could suck contaminants from the coal ash farther into the groundwater. Midwest Generation monitors the groundwater around its property and reports the results to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's a self-implementing program, and they're doing exactly what they're supposed to do," said Rick Cobb, manager of the Illinois E.P.A.'s groundwater and source-water program.
Midwest Generation said it had not found heavy metal or other dangerous contamination of wells near the Joliet landfill. The Illinois E.P.A. ordered the company to contain boron seeping into groundwater, though it had not reached wells, Mr. Cobb said.

The Joliet landfill was among 39 sites nationwide identified in an August report by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project as places where coal ash had contaminated water. The same groups earlier identified 31 other coal-ash dumps that they said contaminated water, and the federal E.P.A. has noted contamination at 67 others.
But Mr. Cobb said there was no evidence of leaching at the Joliet site. The Illinois E.P.A. does not normally test wells, though special testing it did in light of concerns found no well contamination. Mr. Cobb added that any contamination could be caused by other industries nearby.

Mr. Bilbrew said that he had no hard feelings toward Midwest Generation and that he just wanted to know if his water was safe. Mrs. Thompson has found an environmental lawyer to do pro bono testing this winter.

"That water tastes good to me coming out of my well," Mr. Bilbrew said, adding that his diabetes medication makes him especially thirsty. "I used to go outside and turn the water hose on, let it get nice and cool and just drink as much as I could take. Now I wonder if that water could kill me." 

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