Environmentalists voice concern over coal ash amendment

Although it has many commercial applications in cement and road construction, coal ash itself can contain toxic levels of arsenic, lead and mercury. If disposed or stored in un-monitored or inadequately lined ash coal ponds, or if stored too close to major sources of water, rainwater can pull the chemicals into the aquifer and contaminate drinking supplies.

The Amendment, sponsored by Rep. David Mckinley R-WV, is attached to the Surface Transportation Extension Act, which would extend federal-aid for roads and highways. The Amendment reads that regulation of coal ash would be left to states to decide. This does not jive with many environmental groups and advocates, who say that regulation of coal as disposal is inconsistent and pose a serious risk to public health.

?We just need to be thinking smarter on this? said Dr. Lynn Ringenberg, emeritus professor of pediatrics at USF, in a conference call on coal ash pollution. Ringenberg said that she has seen a noted increase in the last 15 years of children suffering from illnesses often caused by toxins found in coal ash. "We need to make it safe before putting it out there,? said Dr. Ringenberg. She added that while some health effects show themselves early, such as the decreased IQ in children that can be caused by arsenic exposure, some symptoms of poisoning can sometimes lay dormat until late in adulthood.

Emily Enderle of Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm specializing in environmental law, said that there are already seven documented cases of leaking coal ash ponds in Florida. Enderle said that federal enforceability is needed to make sure coal ash is properly stored and disposed of. This would include ensuring powerplants have reinforced ponds for storing wet coal ash, covers to catch airborne ash (known as fly ash) and monitoring systems to detect chemical levels and detect leaks.

Steve Johnson,42, is a landscaping business owner living about 30 miles outside of Jacksonville in rural Clay County. About three years ago, Johnson accepted several tons of EZBase, a road-paving made from coal ash from the Jacksonville Electric Authority?s power plants. He said that a JEA representative told him that the product was ?safe as sand?. He found out after being cited by the Florida Department of Environmental protection that it was too toxic for the thirty acres of property he owned, which slopes back towards three ponds and an estuary.

?How can they bring this stuff to a man?s house?? said Johnson, adding that the value of his property has plummeted and that the pavements on the land were no longer safe for his 3-year-old daughter to play on.

Thursday marked the 2nd anniversary of the EPA?s proposal for two sets of regulations for coal ash. One would create a state and federal permitting process for storing and disposal of coal ash. Another would only have state permits but the EPA could step in if need be or upon a grievance.

Environmental groups are up in arms about an amendment to a transportation bill passed through the House of Representatives on Wednesday that would prevent the EPA from regulating coal ash and its byproducts on a federal level.

Also known as coal combustion residuals (CCR), coal ash is a byproduct of large-scale coal-burning from coal-based power plants. The 14 coal-burning power plants in Florida, the closest to Tampa being the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach, generate about a quarter or the state’s electricity and about 8 billion pounds of coal ash a year. There is currently no federal regulation on the disposal and storage of coal ash.

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