Each year, the four coal-fired generators at W.C. Dale Station can produce anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 cubic yards of coal ash.
To deal with all that ash, East Kentucky Power Cooperative is currently searching for a suitable site for a permanent permitted landfill.
“We certainly understand, in this day and age, when people hear there’s going to be an ash landfill, they have some concerns,” said Nick Comer, a spokesman for the electric cooperative.
Currently, when waste is produced at Dale Station, the ash is mixed with water and pumped to a holding pond located on site, a process called sluicing. The water is allowed to naturally drain from a discharge site and, when the pond is full, the dry ash is loaded onto trucks and transported to a permanent disposal site.
“That’s not intended for permanent storage of ash. We have two ponds at Dale Station. We use those on an alternating basis. We’ll sluice to one pond for a couple of years till it gets full of ash. Then we de-water it and go in there with a track-hoe and take the ash out, load it into trucks, take it to either a landfill or a beneficial re-use site,” said Craig Johnson, vice president of production at EKPC.
Typically, Johnson said, an ash pond is in use for four or five years before it is emptied and cleaned. The cleaning process takes two years. EKPC must purchase a piece of property in time to receive the adequate permits for a landfill, so that there will be somewhere to take the ash collected in the pond being used currently.
In the past, ash has been taken to East Kentucky’s headquarters on Lexington Road or to the J.K. Smith Station in Trapp, to use as structural fill for two gas-fired generators located at that site.
However, last summer, the landfill at EKPC headquarters reached maximum capacity and has been covered. There is no need for structural fill at Smith Station, and using the site as a landfill is cost prohibitive due to the distance between the two stations, which Johnson estimated to be approximately 40 miles.
“It’s our responsibility to keep (cooperative) members’ rates as low as possible, and ash disposal is a big cost,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, the water that drains from the Dale Station ponds is monitored on a regular basis, to make sure that pH levels are safe, and to check for the presence of metals. Johnson said that in the past, the pH level (a measure of acidity) has been adjusted with an acid drip in the drainage pipe, a process he compared to regulating the pH level in a swimming pool, but he was not aware of any metals being detected. Test results must be submitted to the state on a monthly and quarterly basis.
East Kentucky Power has the option of using the ash in what are known as beneficial reuse projects, a solution that has been employed in the past.
Coal ash was used for construction of the George Rogers Clark High School soccer and softball fields, and as structural fill for the new Veterans Memorial Bypass. However, Comer said that the cooperative cannot guarantee that such a project will be available when the time comes to permanently dispose of the ash, making a landfill the best option.
While the practice is considered safe by the state government, and coal ash does not have to be monitored as a hazardous substance, there are environmental groups that question the ability to control metals from leaching into the soil and, ultimately, the local water supply, when a landfill is created.
The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of reviewing federal regulations.
“There’s the possibility, unless you’re managing it correctly, that some of it will be picked up,” said Tom FitzGerald, the director of the Kentucky Resources Council.
FitzGerald was not familiar with EKPC’s individual situation, and could not comment on plans for the new landfill. He criticized the current regulations because he said required testing does not accurately assess the potential for metals to leach into the soil.
According to a report submitted by FitzGerald to the Centers for Disease Control in 2009, the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure used to monitor coal ash landfills is “not sufficient to predict short-and-long-term leaching characteristics of coal combustion.”
“Some other tests have been designed to better replicate what’s going to happen,” FitzGerald said in a separate interview.
According to Comer, there are only trace amounts of metal present in the coal ash, and the metals are naturally present in the soil already.
“When you burn the coal, what you have left are trace elements that were present in the coal, present in soil, and in the crust of the Earth. That’s something that has been studied for a number of decades, by the Environmental Protection Agency, by universities, by industry groups, the potential impacts of ash. The Environmental Protection Agency has looked at it on at least three occasions and has said the regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste is not warranted,” Comer said.
When the new landfill is constructed, Johnson said, the area will be lined with clay to help prevent leaching, although such a lining is not currently required. FitzGerald said that synthetic leaching collection liners are the best way to prevent leaching.
Craig Seagall, an attorney for the Sierra Club, also said that a synthetic leaching liner is the ideal practice.