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Coal ash topples down slope into Lake Michigan

News | November 4, 2011 | By:

Landslide near Milwaukee raises issues about containment

Coal ash and other debris from decades gone by hurtled down a steep slope Oct. 31, a landslide into Lake Michigan that was a Halloween scare.

The ash, as well as a pickup, several trailers and other equipment ran downward from the elevated grounds of a We Energies coal-powered electrical power plant south of Milwaukee. No one was injured at the site.

The scary scene in Wisconsin recalled a similar disaster from nearly three years ago when byproduct ash sludge from a coal-fired plant in Kingston, Tenn., burst through its unlined containment area, covering acres of land and contaminating nearby streams.

The coal-ash issue, which had been under fairly quiet debate for years, was finally ignited by the December 2008 breach in Kingston. That spill released more than 5 million cubic yards of ash waste that contained toxic substances such as arsenic, selenium, lead, and mercury. The cost for the multi-year cleanup of that site in eastern Tennessee is estimated at more than $1 billion.

Coal ash is a byproduct produced in coal-powered electrical plants. Containment ponds of coal ash sludge are currently under state regulations. But the Kingston disaster prompted the entry of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into the debate.

Some power industry facilities have opted for unlined coal-ash containment, considering lined facilities—such as those for solid waste—too expensive. In the absence of clear regulations, coal ash is often stored in unlined pits.

The EPA conducted evaluations of ash impoundment facilities around the country and rated dozens as “high risk.” The agency also held hearing across the country on its “Proposed Rule–Coal Combustion Residuals.”

Geosynthetic lining systems are required in solid-waste management, and have been since the 1970s. With recent attention on coal-ash containment, a move toward regulating its storage under the same rules that govern municipal waste would mean the use of geosynthetic containment technologies.

The Geosynthetic Materials Association (GMA) has advocated tenaciously for these lining containment regulations, testifying at EPA hearings and taking the issue to educational Lobby Day sessions on Capitol Hill.

In Wisconsin, the cleanup is ongoing and the environmental damage appears less dramatic than the Kingston disaster. Officials rushed samples of tainted water and spilled ash to laboratories for evaluation.

The landslide occurred when a section of cliff about 100 yards wide gave way. We Energies and state officials said the cause has not been determined.

The EPA said it will take several days to complete the analysis. Of particular concern were heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury found in ash from coal incineration. About 2,500 cubic yards of ash may have rolled into Lake Michigan, according to We Energies.

See a video report of the Oak Creek slide at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website and a series of photographs from the site.

-Ron Bygness, editor, Geosynthetics and

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