Of all the times to shelve coal ash disposal rules

I missed this Des Moines Register story last week:

Iowa state environmental regulators want to shelve for as long as three years new rules intended to keep toxic coal ash out of Iowa’s water supplies, largely because of industry protests.

Environmentalists say the state is caving in to industry pressure while putting Iowans’ drinking water supplies, and health, at risk.

The article quotes Carrie La Seur, founder of Plains Justice, as saying she learned on December 30

that Iowa regulators agreed to postpone action on their new rules after companies that handle ash waste questioned the true health risk and objected to potential costs associated with the changes that they said would be passed on to consumers.

Instead, the firms offered to install monitoring wells to check whether ash is polluting water around unlined former gravel pits and ravines where the material is used as fill.

Coal ash typically contains a variety of heavy metals that can cause cancer, neurological and developmental problems, and other illnesses. The pollutants include arsenic, lead, mercury and boron, which are concentrated at levels in the ash that are far above the amount found in coal.

In 2007 Plains Justice produced an Iowa Coal Combustion Waste Disposal Report. Click the link to download the report.

La Seur told the Des Moines Register that Plains Justice is particularly concerned about storing coal ash near rivers.

With good reason, because the recent billion-gallon coal ash spill in Tennessee may be even worse for the environment and for human health than it first appeared.

This Daily Kos diary discusses the contaminants that have already been found in the Emory River since that accident:

All water samples were found to contain elevated levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. The samples were taken from the immediate area of the coal waste spill, in front of the Kingston Fossil plant intake canal just downstream from the spill site, and at a power line crossing two miles downstream from the spill.

These pollutants will flow downstream to larger rivers, and they are likely to remain in the environment for a long time. Water near a similar accident in Kentucky remained devoid of aquatic life for years.

Even worse, waste produced by coal plants contains radioactive compounds. Daily Kos diarist Hummingbird linked to a 2007 article from Scientific American: Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. Click the link to read the very disturbing details.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources should not back off from requiring coal ash storage facilities to have liners. That is a reasonable precaution, given how many hazardous substances are concentrated in the coal ash.

The Register says companies have offered to install wells to monitor whether contaminants are leaching from unlined ravines and gravel pits into groundwater. I hope the DNR will have the resources and commitment to follow through on this monitoring and check compliance. I do not want to take corporations’ word for it that the water around their storage facilities is fine.

Unfortunately, the DNR is not always quick to investigate potential water quality problems.

The disaster in Tennessee should be a reminder to all that there is no such thing as clean coal, even if future technology were able to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

UPDATE: A commenter at Daily Kos pointed out that the timeline of the DNR’s decision is unclear. La Seur says she learned of plans to shelve the new disposal rules on December 30. But did the DNR make that decision before or after the Tennessee disaster occurred on December 22?

If you know the answer to this question, please e-mail me confidentially at desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.

SECOND UPDATE: I got this reply from La Seur:

Plains Justice has been working with DNR on this rulemaking for most of the last year following our 2007 coal ash disposal report.  We filed comments on a draft rulemaking at the end of the summer.  DNR then announced that it would be issuing a second draft for comment in December.  We were waiting on that when the TN coal ash spill happened.  Because of TN we began to get press queries about Iowa’s status, so we called DNR to ask what was happening with the rulemaking.  DNR told us that the rulemaking was being shelved because of industry resistance and DNR would be changing the website soon to reflect that change.  To my knowledge there was no public notice or public hearing.

We’ve been publicizing this development and pursuing other actions in response.  If anyone needs more information, give me a call at 319-362-2120.

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