09/22/2010 11:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coal Ash Threatens Water From Baton Rouge Southwards

Residents of South Louisiana, agonizing over contaminants from petro-chemical plants, may think coal ash is something for people in Appalachia to fret about. Environmentalists, however, say ash from a big, coal-fueled power plant north of Baton Rouge is a threat to ground and drinking water along the Mississippi River--heading south.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is worried about coal ash nationally, and is holding hearings across the country this month to gather ideas about how to regulate its disposal.

As coal ash dangers are scrutinized, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took its chances recently and began using fly ash in a demonstration project to strengthen a levee near Belle Chasse, La. Fly ash, along with bottom ash, is a residue generated by coal use, and has self-cementing properties. Whether it should be used near rivers and water supplies, however, is up for debate.

Nationally, coal ash concerns escalated in late 2008 when the stuff cascaded into and around the Emory River from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant near Knoxville, sending residents rushing for safety. The TVA, the nation's biggest public utility, is still cleaning up that mess. After the Kingston spill, the Sierra Club and other environmentalists called for the EPA to pass strong regulations to protect the public from ash. Coal-fired plants create dumpsites and waste ponds that are filled with ash, which contains heavy metals like arsenic and lead, they said.

Closer to home, the Sierra Club has kept an eye on Big Cajun II, a coal-fired power plant owned and operated by New Jersey-based NRG Energy, Inc. and located 40 miles north of Baton Rouge--near New Roads in Point Coupee Parish. Entergy is a co-owner of Unit Three in that complex. In the same area, NRG also owns the Big Cajun I plant, but it is fueled by natural gas.

A report released in late August by the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, titled "In Harm's Way," identified 39 coal-combustion, waste-disposal sites in 21 states. Big Cajun II was among them. Those sites generate hazardous byproducts from burning coal for electricity, and are in addition to another 98 facilities across the nation that have contaminated ground or surface water with toxic metals and other pollutants, said Jordan Macha, New Orleans-based organizer for the Sierra Club. Data gathered in the study brought the tally of U.S. sites polluted by coal ash or sludge from power plants to at least 137 in 34 states, the report said. Some of the sites are less regulated than a town garbage dump.

Macha said, "The Big Cajun II coal plant produces a lot of harmful pollutants that cause problems for our air, land and water. These include carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and fly ash. The plant's coal ash landfills are adjacent to the Mississippi River, and are known to be leaching selenium and other heavy metals into groundwater."

She said several public, drinking water wells are within a few miles of Big Cajun II, and polluted groundwater enters the Mississippi River--a source of drinking water for river communities, including New Orleans.

Macha said "beginning in 2006, the state Dept. of Environmental Quality approved requests to fill hollow, barge mooring cells in the Mississippi River with bottom ash and fly from Big Cajun II." Those cells are facilities for holding barges in the river. "Ash used for mooring contains arsenic, barium and other heavy metals," she said. "It cannot be confirmed if any water or sediment is monitored near the mooring cells to ensure that toxic metals are not leaching from the coal ash."

While coal arrives at Big Cajun II from the north by barge on the Mississippi River, the plant's coal deliveries are only a minimal source of pollution, Macha said.

Efforts to control air and water contamination by Big Cajun II have been inadequate, according to Macha. For example, "even with emission-control standards, smokestack scrubbers can only get 10% of mercury removed from air emissions leaving the plant," she said. "Mercury contaminates our air and water, affecting the fish we eat as it bio-accumulates, causing potentially harmful health conditions. For waterways around the state, including those near Baton Rouge and New Orleans, mercury-in-fish advisories are issued by the state Department of Health and Hospitals."

David Knox, NRG Energy spokesman in Houston, however, pointed to an improved, environmental record at Big Cajun II--which, he said, has been in compliance with state and federal regulations since NRG purchased the plant ten years ago. "NRG bought Big Cajun II in 2000, and since then we've used low-sulfur coal and low, nitrogen-oxide burners to reduce emissions."

Knox said, "The plant's coal-ash storage site has two ash piles or landfills and three water treatment ponds. Five perimeter, monitoring wells test shallow, groundwater approximately 50 feet below these areas." He continued "ash is stored using a dry process, unlike the wet ponds in TVA. Our perimeter wells are tested twice a year by a certified laboratory, checking for the parameters required by our state permit."

Knox said "tests since we've owned the company have detected selenium only twice, and that was earlier this decade and it was just barely above detectable limits--well below any harmful or regulatory level." After 2004, selenium was never detected again, he said. "An analysis conducted in January of this year didn't find any arsenic. Testing has not shown toxic metals contaminating groundwater."

Knox added, "For the last six years, our monitoring wells have not detected any selenium or other toxic elements. The state has not required us to put in additional monitoring wells" so far. He said more monitoring wells would be installed, however, after the plant's new state permit, which is in the process of being renewed, is approved.

Knox also said, "our ash pile is operated per state specifications, and inspections are conducted on a routine basis by the state, as well as the facility."

When asked about mercury, Knox said Big Cajun II does release some mercury emissions into the atmosphere. However, he noted that Washington has no cap on mercury emissions. "When new federal, mercury-emission rules are formulated, we will comply with them."

In 2008, NRG nixed a plan to expand Big Cajun II because the company did not secure enough new, forward energy sales to justify the cost of the project, Knox said. NRG sells power from Big Cajun II to customers in Louisiana and eastern Texas, along with cities in Arkansas. Some of the plant's fly ash is sold to companies that use it to make cement stronger and lighter. Fly ash has been utilized safely in cement for decades, Knox said.

As for oversight of Big Cajun II, the facility was given pollutant-discharge permits last year based on its adherence to federal and state regulations, said Tim Beckstrom, spokesman for the state's Dept. of Environmental Quality. "The last LPDES, or Louisiana Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, permit issued to Big Cajun II was in March 2009, effective May 2009," he said. "That permit was granted after the plant was found in compliance with all applicable, EPA effluent guidelines--under federal regulation 40 CFR 423--and was complying with the state's surface-water, pollution-control standards and pollutant-discharge, elimination-system rules."

Beckstrom said, "EPA is reviewing federal guidelines under 40 CFR 423 at this time. We're not sure if EPA plans to amend them. Any amendments, however, will likely be scheduled for adoption in 2013. In the meantime, EPA has issued an interim guidance regarding coal-ash impoundments or accumulations. Our agency recently received a copy of this interim guidance and is reviewing the document."

Beckstrom said requests to use fly ash for mooring river barges are reviewed by DEQ. A plant that wants to use a solid-waste material for a new purpose "is usually required to submit a beneficial-use plan to our solid-waste permit division for approval, prior to beginning that use," he said. "Big Cajun II has received approval in the past to beneficially use fly ash. Any future requests will be evaluated when proposed."

As an engineering material, fly ash is pozzolanic in nature, meaning it reacts chemically with lime in the presence of moisture to form strong cement. Because of its spherical shape, fly ash can increase the workability of cement, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District. Fly ash has not been used to strengthen south Louisiana levees yet, but could be some day. In ancient Rome, aqueducts were built using volcanic ash, which is similar in nature to fly ash.

"The Army Corps has never used coal ash in levee construction along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge south or in the Atchafalaya Basin," said Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District. "However, we are testing a stabilized soil mixture, which includes fly ash, in a one-thousand-foot, levee-enhancement demonstration project in Plaquemines Parish, using similar techniques to those used in Memphis, Tenn. The levee demonstration project consists of one section using lime in soil stabilization and a second section using fly ash." Lime has been used to strengthen levees in Vicksburg, Miss.

Boyett said the Army Corps and Louisiana officials would evaluate results of the levee demo-project in Plaquemines for cost, constructability and durability. "The technique will be included in the overall project's Individual Environmental Report--which will be available for public review and comment."

Following a public review of the Corp's levee-strengthening methods, fly ash might be used in south Louisiana levees if it appears cost effective. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists generally oppose that idea, however, fearing toxins from ash will seep into the river and drinking water supplies.

In May, the U.S. EPA said coal ash might have to be federally regulated, and said "without proper protections, contaminants in coal can leach into groundwater and often migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant public health concerns." EPA has since proposed two, main approaches to coal ash disposal. One is to phase out surface impoundments or accumulations, and move all ash to landfills. The other would allow coal ash to be disposed of in surface impoundments, but with strict safety rules.

Given current, coal-ash concerns, you'll probably hear more about the product, and one day might find yourself wondering, "is that a fly in my drink or is it fly ash?"

As for the future of coal, Macha said since greenhouse-gas emissions from burning coal are two to three times greater than those from natural gas, the push is on to develop cleaner, alternative forms of energy across the nation. "The use of natural gas, if produced in an environmentally conscious way, can be a transition fuel to a new, energy economy," she said.

In Asia, China is heavily polluted after using coal during its industrial revolution, but is now developing alternative, energy facilities at a rapid pace, Macha said.

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly on Sept. 20, 2010.