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Coal-ash monitoring increased

BY JOSEPH BELK | JANUARY 20, 2010 7:30 AM

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UI officials expanded groundwater monitoring this week at the university’s coal-ash disposal site, ramping up efforts to determine if the byproduct from the UI Power Plant could be dangerous.

The university is working with Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, and BMC Aggregates — which owns the quarry where the coal ash is stored — to extensively monitor the site, an abandoned quarry in Waterloo, where the byproduct from coal-fired power plants, or “coal ash,” is dumped, said UI environmental compliance manager Michael Valde. The UI Power Plant has two coal-powered boilers and uses approximately 100,000 tons of coal each year.

Jeffrey Witt, the assistant director of utilities at Iowa State, said in an e-mail officials expect to have samples later in the month, though he noted the data won’t be accurate for roughly a year. The groundwater testing must take into account numerous statistical considerations, including “seasonal variations.”

The lack of a protective clay liner has raised concerns about groundwater contamination at the Waterloo site, though no contaminants have registered in the water after five or six years of monitoring, said Sherman Lundy, a geologist working with BMC Aggregates. Though monitoring has been ongoing, the additional drill sites added this week will provide testers with more data.

According to a report by the Sierra Club, more than 60 universities use coal power, an energy source that has been the target of environmental groups’ ire. They are also concerned about the handling of coal ash. Laws regarding proper coal-ash disposal differ from state to state in the absence of federal regulations.

Following a major coal-ash spill in Tennessee in 2008, the EPA began pursuing federal regulations on coal-ash handling, but the deadline passed at the end of last year without a decision, and disagreements continue over how to properly classify the material.

Lundy said the pH levels of the site make a protective liner unnecessary and could potentially double the handling costs.

“Metals need an acidic or low pH environment to leach out of ash or any other substance,” Witt said. “The BMC site is a limestone quarry, which by its nature is alkaline or a high pH environment.”

Lucie Laurian, a UI associate professor of urban and regional planning, said the general consensus is high pH environments for ash disposal are safe. But she noted that leakage at the site could potentially occur as a result of unexpected groundwater movement away from the site. There would likely be an increase in forms of cancer attributed to the heavy metals found in the ash if drinking water became contaminated, she said.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources granted the site a “beneficial-use waiver,” giving officials permission to store coal ash without the need for monitoring and without the installation of a protective clay liner. Installing a liner isn’t expected, Lundy said.

Despite some officials’ assurances about the safety of properly monitored sites, a 2007 study conducted by the EPA found cancer risks of populations living near unlined coal ash increased exponentially. In a statement by the EPA, the agency said that a coal-ash rule will be passed in the near future.

Officials said they will be able to make an assessment of the Waterloo site’s safety within the next year.


Correction appended 01/21/09:
In the Jan. 20 article “Coal-ash monitoring increased,” the DI incorrectly reported the amount of coal burned annually by the UI Power Plant. The UI burns about 100,000 tons of coal each year. The DI regrets the error.


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