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Tighter rules in store for

coal ash disposal                                        Printer friendly format

By Maureen Kelly

In the mid 1800s, Wenham Lake in Beverly, Massachusetts was renowned as the place that produced the very best of a popular commodity—ice. During the heyday of the New England ice industry, people from London to Persia believed that Wenham Lake ice was the purest in the world.

Today, ice cubes from Wenham Lake might not deserve that reputation. The lake—a source of drinking water for approximately 80,000 people—is no longer pristine. Part of the lake bottom is coated with a slurry of fly ash that leached from the nearby Vitale landfill.


Fly ash is a type of coal ash, the waste material that remains after coal is burned to produce electricity. Coal ash can contain a variety of heavy metals and toxins including arsenic and mercury.

Wenham Lake exemplifies places across the United States where ground or surface water has been contaminated as a result of the improper disposal of this waste. The Vitale site is one of more than 20 documented and proven cases. More than 100 other sites across the nation have been identified as potentially fouled.

The ash in Wenham Lake originated at a coal-fired power plant in Salem and was disposed of in unlined pits at the Vitale site during the 1950s and 1960s. Residents who lived near the landfill first noticed a sooty substance seeping into a stream that fed into Wenham Lake in the early 1970s. State investigations later revealed that ash migrated via the stream into the lake. Ash samples taken from the Vitale site contained heavy metals including arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, lead, selenium and zinc.

As part of a long grassroots effort aimed at getting the Vitale site and Wenham Lake recognized as a site for priority clean up, the Wenham Lake Watershed Association (WLWA) held an event on the frozen lake shortly after Toxic Action Center bestowed its ignominious “Dirty Dozen” award on the Vitale site in 2000.

WLWA member Lori Ehrlich recalled that a fisherman drilled a hole in the ice with an auger and then they inserted a six-foot tube to extract a cross section from the lakebed. The core that spilled out on top of the ice showed six inches of natural soil and three feet of black fly ash, Ehrlich said. It was a tangible and alarming sign of how polluted the lake had become.

New England Power Company, which owned the Salem power plant when the dumping occurred, responded to community concerns and took responsibility for cleaning up the Vitale site and Wenham Lake. (The company is now a subsidiary of National Grid.)

Work on the landfill could begin as early as this fall after permits are obtained and a contractor is chosen, according to Michael Lotti, an environmental engineer at National Grid. The effort will involve moving the ash that migrated back into the pit as well as shaping the pile and cutting back slopes to ensure that the material does not erode again.

Late next summer or early fall, work is expected to start at the lake. To avoid stirring up contaminants such as arsenic in the public drinking water supply, they will not dredge into the water, rather, they will scrape the ash from the exposed shoreline when the lake waters are lowest.

Environmental and citizen groups across the country have been calling for tighter regulations governing the disposal of coal ash to protect public health from such endangerment.

“Regulation of this is long overdue,” said Lisa Evans, the director of the Power Plant Waste Project at Clean Air Task Force, a group that joined more than 100 environmental groups last winter in petitioning the EPA to prohibit the dumping of coal ash into ground and surface water.

Byproducts of coal combustion are exempt from federal hazardous waste regulation. The EPA has begun developing regulations—expected to be released for public comment in 2006—for the placement of coal combustion waste in landfills and surface impoundments that will ensure consistent regulation across the country.

Until national regulations are in place, states remain responsible for overseeing the disposal of this waste. Whereas some states impose controls—such as requiring liners in disposal pits—others take no more precaution than in dealing with ordinary gravel.

In Massachusetts, regulations allow those disposing of coal ash to bypass solid waste laws when the ash is to be used for purposes such as fill, concrete block manufacture or road construction.
Some affected communities are not waiting for better state or federal regulations to go into place, however.

In the southern Massachusetts town of Freetown, citizens voted to ban coal ash disposal within town limits in 2000. For 25 years, landfills there accepted coal ash from power plants owned by PG&E Corporation in Salem and Somerset. The landfills had unlined pits. One was near the town aquifer.

Leading up to the ban, testing ordered by the town Board of Health found excessive levels of arsenic in the landfill and in gravel trucks used to transport the ash, said Freetown’s state representative Mark Howland. Surrounding towns also banned coal ash disposal in their landfills.

Howland and some of his colleagues on Beacon Hill believe all towns in Massachusetts should be protected from unsafe disposal practices. If passed next year, a bill in the state legislature will require coal ash to be regulated as solid waste to ensure that sites for coal ash disposal are assigned by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection or a town’s Board of Health.

 © 2004 The Gulf of Maine Times