One of the most hotly contested current environmental issues in the U.S. is that of coal ash, also known as fly ash, and whether or not to allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate it as a toxic material. The issue especially hits home with some residents of Louisville, Kentucky, who have been dealing with health and quality of life problems for years due to their proximity to the smoke stacks and coal ash waste ponds owned by Louisville Gas & Electric.
It was always known that the coal ash had been polluting certain neighborhoods to the point that some days, families could not even go outside and play in their own yards. There was no hard proof however, until a recent study performed by Louisville Gas & Electric proved that various ground samples did in fact contain aluminum and silicon among other potentially harmful substances. The samples taken did not include the heavy metals often found in coal ash, which can include “arsenic, beryllium, boron, camium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins, and PAH compounds,” as stated in Wikipedia.com. Some coal ash is recycled and used in concrete, but much is stored in landfills. Since coal ash has been stored since the mid 1900’s when environmental rules were much less developed, it is questionable how many of those landfills were even lined.
The Air Pollution Control District is investigating whether the coal ash pollution is coming from the smoke stacks or from the nearby coal ash dump. LG & C has a permit to emit the ash from smokestacks, but if the contamination is found to be from the dump, the company may be ordered to take remedial actions.
Coal ash can be tremendously dangerous for human health. Cancer rates in some neighborhoods in proximity to LG & E’s Cane Run Power Station have skyrocketed. According to Elizabeth Irvin, a Sierra Club apprentice, the “EPA has found that people living near coal ash ponds have a risk of cancer greater than that of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. Community organizers say that behind every door they knock on is someone with either cancer or kidney failure.”
LG & C has been applying for permits to add even more coal ash waste dumps. The major problem with fighting for the homeowners to take back their health and property values is that there are few rules in place and no organization with the authority to enforce what few regulations do exist. The electric industry has been lobbying tirelessly to prevent the EPA from regulating coal ash as hazardous waste, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. There is strong support from the industry to classify coal as a non-hazardous waste, but many others make the argument that doing so would let polluters off the hook to take the disposal of coal ash seriously.
The electric utility industry claims that coal ash is far from a toxic waste but for those Louisville residents whose lives have been directly affected by the substance could not disagree more.
Of all the superlatives for a state to be known for, Worst in Water Pollution is probably among the least desirable. You can probably imagine then that the folks in Indiana are less than thrilled about the title the state recently earned of “worst in nation for water pollution” by WTHR News.
The Ohio River, which flows through Indiana, is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Large corporations are blatant in their dumping of hazardous waste materials into state rivers and environmental regulations lack the bite to do anything about it.
A report by the group, Environment America, stated that “Indiana factories discharged more than 27 million pounds of pollutants into the state’s rivers and streams, the highest amount from any state.” One company alone, the AK Steel plant, “discharged 24 million pounds- more than two-thirds of the pollutants discharged into the Ohio River from the states that line the river.”
What comes as a major surprise is that although the waters of Indiana are largely polluted and unable to be used for swimming and fishing, a disturbing environmental trend is occurring. Handfuls of state lawmakers are pushing to relax the water protection laws even further, claiming they are negatively affecting the economy. “Complaints about how environmental regulations are handcuffing businesses are a common refrain from many Hoosier candidates,” read an OpEd piece in the Journal Gazette.
Some people in the state are disgusted by the blatant disregard for the health of the water. EPA official Eric Schaeffer said, “The water’s not clean and you’re adding more pollution to a body of water that’s already too dirty. I mean, what’s too difficult to understand about that?” It is clear that regulations should not become more lenient, and those that are already on the books need to be enforced to reverse this dirty environmental trend of contaminating the most valuable natural resource of all—water.
Plans for a renovation project at Wethersfield High School had to be abruptly halted before any actual work began. Mandatory testing exposed elevated levels of PCBs, and officials do not yet know if the levels discovered in the “flooring, caulking, paint, roofing and plaster including one area that was heavily contaminated with the toxin” are dangerous enough to cause problems for anyone who comes in contact said Christopher Hoffman of the Hartford Courant.
EnviroMed, the environmental engineering and consulting company who performed the building inspection, was only able to test part of the school because their allotted contract budget already maxed out at $45,000. The company is requesting an additional $80,000 to complete the first round of testing and perform more thorough air quality testing and wipe tests to see if vapor intrusion has lead to any contamination.
Superintendant Michael Emmett notified parents by email and snail mail but urged parents not worry. “I don’t have any data that says kids are unsafe. We have done what we need to ensure student safety.”
On the other hand, there is not a comforting level of data that says the amount of PCBs found is safe. The samples taken from expansion joints show contamination levels at 93,000 milligrams per kilogram, according to Hoffman’s Hartford Courant article. In other locations, the environmental consultant company found PCB at the much more reasonable measurement of 1 to 30 milligrams per kilogram.
The federal DEP PCB coordinator assigned to the school hesitated to comment, only saying “In general, acceptable PCB levels are up to 50 milligrams per kilogram, although that figure varies based on the material and other factors.”
One fact Wethersfield residents can count on is that the initial renovation budget will bust a zipper by the time a thorough site assessment is complete and it will come apart at the seams if a costly remediation project is tacked on to the final tally.
The State of Oklahoma has never been known as a particularly earthquake prone area with approximately 50 minor quakes on an annual basis. Residents have experienced nearly 2,600 over the past year. This huge increase in seismic activity has sparked the interest of scientists. These researchers have hypothesized that the increase in earthquakes may be directly linked to the increase of hydraulic fracturing or fracking by area gas and oil companies.
Fracking involves the practice of injecting liquids at a high pressure into the ground to release oil or natural gas from rock shale. While the desired fuel is released, water is also released. This water as well as any used to loosen the rock of the shale must be disposed of since it is now considered waste water. This waste is pumped back underground into what have become known as disposal wells. It is these disposal wells that are believed to be creating the increased amount of Oklahoma earthquakes. The issue lies in that the water changes the pressure underground and can crack dormant fault lines. Oklahoma has an estimated four thousand disposal wells for tens of thousands of fracking wells. Each fracking well can produce 400,000 gallons of contaminated water a day.
The potential danger from disposal wells is nothing new, with states like Arkansas and Ohio banning the practice. Gas and oil companies prefer disposal wells since it is much less costly than the alternative option of trucking the waste water elsewhere. Proponents of fracking practices have argued that there has been no proven link made between fracking and earthquakes. They point out that there have not been any earthquakes in the areas with the most disposal wells.
Residents are apprehensive to condemn fracking practices since the state relies on the industry for over 340,000 jobs. Area residents due however, feel that the earthquakes are scary and are thankful the quakes have not been significant enough to cause major damage. With that said, many Oklahomans prefer the tornadoes that they have become accustomed to over earthquakes. Scientists who believe that there is a link between fracking disposal wells and seismic activity argue that these smaller earthquakes may only be the beginning of a disturbing environmental trend. The continued use of disposal wells may lead to an increase in the frequency as well as the magnitude of the tremors.
A little sneaky little loophole in New York law allows schools that are leased through the city to forgo initial contamination testing, even when the school is built atop a remediated Brownfield property. This recently has caused alarm with parents and school faculty when it was discovered that Bronx New School in Bedford Park is contaminated enough that it had to be shut down permanently.
The idea of building schools on top of old Brownfield sites has been around for several decades and with legitimate reasons. With the growing population of Brooklyn, schools quickly became overcrowded and new sites large enough to build schools are scarce. Cleaning up Brownfields from bygone industrial and commercial sites seems to be the perfect answer to both environmental cleanup and classroom overcrowding. In fact, “over the years, the education department’s construction arm, the School Construction Authority (SCA) has spent billions of dollars to remediate toxins,” according to Michael Mulgrew, who is president of the United Federation of Teachers.
The problem; however, lies in what is called the “leasing looping”. Properties that the City has bought outright are subject to strict environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Leased properties; on the other hand, are not required to face the same type of testing. Even more upsetting to parents and the community, is the fact that the “city does not have to make public its plans for building, remediating, or monitoring those schools,” says the Gotham Gazette. “Parents, school staff and community members often have no idea that a leased school site sits on top of contaminated property and, more importantly, what the SCA has done to eliminate any health risks,” the article continued.
As school leases have come up for renewal, environmental testing has been triggered for each location. This testing has revealed some disturbing news. In the Bronx New School, tests of air quality have shown unhealthy levels of TCE, an industrial solvent. The school had been operating for nearly twenty years, and over those years student have complained of chronic headaches. The TCE levels were ten times higher than the acceptable safe limit. Soil vapor samples “beneath the school’s floorboards,” revealed “TCE levels more than 10,000 times than the limit set by the state.” (GothamGazette.com)
Bronx New School is not an isolated case. Public School 141 in Harlem was built in the 1990’s and weeks after the completion, testing was conducted and showed levels of PCE so high that the school was shut down before any student ever stepped inside. This wasted millions of dollars and raised eyebrows at the environmental testing requirements.
The lack of disclosure has left parents concerned for their children’s safety. Several parents in the city requested testing after suspicions grew for various reasons. In some of the cases, air quality testing for vapor intrusion and building inspections did indeed show elevated levels of mercury, chromium, lead, arsenic, PCE’s and TCE.
According to the Gazette, “by 2014, leasing will meet one third” of the school district’s capacity needs. With that many schools being built on leased Brownfields, the need for changes to environmental regulations are crucial. The community, and especially parents of students and the school faculty, who may work in a particular school for most of their career, have a right to know the property history of the school sites. Furthermore, testing should not be saved for lease renewals. Strict testing should be performed before any school ever opens its doors.
In spite of environmental safety concerns by residents of Monmouth, Illinois, the remediation experts say the cleanup effort at a property once used by the Monmouth Gas and Coke Company is completely safe and they have nothing to worry about.
Property history of the land shows that for about 54 years, the company’s operations involved the use of hazardous waste materials. Now, although not a Superfund site, environmental consultants have found land pollution and water contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs.)
The EPA has declared that although PAHs and VOCs carry the potential to harm humans who are exposed to large amounts, there is not enough on the MG & C Co property, which is now owned by Ameren. An EPA document reads: “The MPG residues in soil and groundwater at the site currently present little or no risk to the public.” Also, agency noted that “most of the residue was found in shallow groundwater and soil. A survey of wells has shown none are located near enough to the site to be threatened by any potentially impacted groundwater.”
A remediation plan, which is expected to last about seven months, involves removing about 700 tons of contaminated material, which is then brought to another location for use as a landfill cover. The most recent step in the cleanup, one that had residents scratching their heads, was the spraying of a blue substance on the contaminated area. According to Michael Flora, site remediation manager, “the substance is comprised of inert materials such as ground up newspaper, cardboard and other components and is used to spray on oil to minimize dust.”
Everyone involved in the project, from the EPA to Ameren, reassure the public that they are not at risk. Flora has spearheaded 17 similar projects to this successfully so that brings some confidence in the health and safety program.
Here’s a current environmental issue that has two significant sides to the story. Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E) is a major energy supply company in Kentucky with over ten stations that serve both coal and natural gas customers. According to the company’s website, in September 2011, stricter federal environmental regulations prompted LG&E to retire its Cane Run coal plant. In a separate issue, the energy company filed a request for approval to convert the station to a 495 megawatt natural gas turbine. But I digress.
With the end of coal combustion at the Cane Run station, the question arose of what to do with the coal ash pond that was still on the site. Traditionally, a clay-like fill compound is used to seal the pond. But in a move that could be a potentially clever, money-saving, environmentally sustainable solution, LG&E asked the Kentucky Division of Waste Management to fill the pond with coal ash already produced by its other plants.
As described by Erica Peterson, of WFPL.org, “The coal ash will be beneficially reused to start covering the pond, in anticipation of the plant’s conversion to natural gas in 2015.”
While it might seem crazy to some to keep coal ash, also known as fly ash, in a pond instead of disposing of it or capping it with a less harmful material, the idea makes sense for several reasons.
1. The coal ash byproduct produced at LG&E’s other stations has to go somewhere. Keeping it right on location will cut down on the transportation costs and risk of spill compared with moving it to a distant landfill.
2. PG&E can maintain control over the coal ash and continue assuming responsibility for it because it will remain on its property.
3. The coal ash will be mixed with a material known as Pozotec, which, according to Peterson, “creates a concrete-like substance.”
One other significant reason for permitting the company to carry out its plan is described by Waste Management assistant director Tim Hubbard. “It’ll reduce the amount of material that would have to be trucked in, for example. Clay material, other material that would have to typically be used as structural fill, it would take a lot of truckloads of that material to use. And since they’ve got this material available on site, that’s why they proposed to use it.”
On the other side of the token, some neighbors and challengers of the idea are troubled, stating fears that the fly ash will live up to its name and spread through the air onto their properties. They don’t like the fact that a coal ash pond normally must be at least 100 yards from a residential property, but since LG&E was granted the special “beneficial use” permit, the site is allowed to be 75 yards or closer.
Still, the company and Waste Management remain positive. Company spokesperson, Chris Whelan said, “We’re just pleased that we’re able to reuse products in this manner and be able to do that right on the property….in the long run it’s going to be good for the customers and good for the neighbors.” It could very well be good for the environmental too, considering LG&E estimates more than 11 football fields of coal ash will be contained in this one ash pond instead of dispersed around landfills where it is not even classified as hazardous waste material.
The state of Connecticut has allotted $4 million towards the remediation of a popular community park in the city of Hamden. The state’s bonding committee is expected to approve of the expenditure once it reaches their desks. Rochford Field has become a huge health concern for families and community members recently, with the fear that any initial environmental protection efforts have become inadequate.
Rochford Field was built on the site of a landfill that was operational from the 1800s all the way until the 1950’s, a time in which environmental regulations were almost nonexistent. Typical household waste was dumped at the site as well as industrial waste from factories like Winchester Repeating Arms. The gun manufacturer disposed of gun parts, shells, and other hazardous waste materials. Other industries disposed of batteries, coal, and ash. The landfill tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic and lead. Once the landfill was closed and the area was developed, several feet of soil were layered on the surface. This soil could have been easily contaminated due to its direct contact with the pollutants. It is this potential danger that brought attention to a need for remediation updates at Rochford Field.
Connecticut plans to place a waterproof liner a few feet beneath Rochford Field’s surface as well as a drainage layer. These barriers would then be covered with about two feet of clean soil. The layers would serve as a preventative measure, so that water resulting from precipitation will not drain deep into the ground becoming contaminated by the underground landfill. The barrier would greatly increase the level of environmental safety of Rochford Field.
The park cleanup comes on the heels of a growing amount of public concerns regarding the sites potentially hazardous soil. The surrounding Newhall neighborhood has already taken part in a two year remediation process to make it safe, the park would be the final step in the process. Once the initial remediation process is complete, the city of Hamden will be responsible for any additional clean up or maintenance at the site.
For contaminated sites in need of remediation—Superfund sites, former gas stations, areas affected by a chemical spill, former homes of dry cleaners—the go-to method for decades has been what is known as pump and treat. Considering that this process has significant disadvantages, namely high cost, turn-around times of fifty to one-hundred years (even thousands in a heavily polluted site), and varying effectiveness; if a better, cleaner, faster, more effective solution came along, wouldn’t the world be rushing to start the process?
Not exactly. A solution has arrived, in the form of bio-remediation. And amazingly, the technology is fighting to put itself on the radar of environmental engineers and even the EPA. This is in spite of the fact that the EPA has accepted bio-remediation as a safe, effective treatment for contamination since 1996. In fact, new companies who are able to perform bio-remediation have trouble breaking into the environmental cleanup market at all. Approximately 90% of all environmental cleanup in the United States is done by the pump and treat method and is carried out by only 10% of companies available to perform the work.
This deadlock on the market leaves out valuable players in the arena of environmental contamination cleanup. Bio-remediation has a number of key benefits. The costs are far less than traditional methods; vapor intrusion is suppressed during the remediation; speed of cleanup is increased with many projects taking less than a year; the process is simplified without the requirement of air, water, or hazardous waste permits; the process can be performed while normal activities are carried out on the property; and very importantly, the treatment is non-toxic, and leaves no residual byproducts, meaning that no waste must be transported from the site. It’s a complete solution; once done, no further cleanup is needed.
ERC, one specific company specializing in bio-remediation using a combination of naturally occurring bacteria and inorganic co-treatments customizes treatments to the conditions of each site. That company in particular has a track record of successfully cleaning up hard-to-get-rid of ground and water contaminants such as DCE, free phase gasoline, MTBE, phenol, and the highly mutagenic and carcinogenic Trichloropropane (TCP.) Amazingly, in one site application, 340 gallons of free phase gasoline (BTEX) were completely undetectable after only three months.
With a new technology come fears of upsetting the status quo, changes in budgets and vendors, and even cutting ties with some long-term partnerships. These reasons are not enough to stop a progressive treatment method whose benefits to the environment and the people affected by contamination sites clearly outweigh any discomforts of change. Bio-remediation has been declared safe and effective by the EPA, the very organization that might be able to enact major change in environmental cleanup. Why is the process so slow-going? In these economic times, if ever there was a time to start really looking at where the money is going, wouldn’t now be the time? What are your thoughts on bio-remediation and why more companies are not choosing to move to this type of technology?
The Pacific Ocean in some areas off Southern California is so polluted that it has sickened people and has even coined a name for that sickness—swimmer illness. The pollution can be traced to the “toxic soup of bacteria, pesticides, fertilizer, and trash,” according to Tony Barboza, of the LA Times. A 2006 article published by Fox News stated that “as many as 1.5 million people are sickened by bacterial pollution on Southern California beaches each year.”
The health and safety urgency of this issue is high enough that the highest court the U.S. has agreed to hear the case between two environmental groups that began the legal battle and the County of Los Angeles.
Environmental attorneys for both Los Angeles County Flood Conrol District and The Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper are gearing up for a heated debate whose outcome will make a splash across water districts nationwide. The case will set legal precedent over who is responsible for hazardous waste materials that make it into the oceans through “gate keepers” on the contributing rivers.
The first victory came in March 2011, for the environmental groups suing the L.A. Flood control district. A 9th Circuit Court of appeals ruled in “finding the county and its flood control district directly responsible for tainted water released into the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, in violation of the Clean Water Act.”
After the 2011 ruling, NRDC attorney Aaron Colangelo said, “This is a huge win and a turning point for clean water and public health in Southern California. The county is now on the hook to clean up this pollution problem, which they acknowledge causes human illness, beach pollution, and undermines the local economy.”
Now that the highest court in the county will hear the case, only time will tell if the judges agree with the appellate court’s ruling.