A proposal to federally regulate, for the first time, the disposal of the residue that comes from burning coal at power plants is getting a public hearing in Denver.
It's an issue that gained urgency after the Tennessee Valley Authority plant spill in 2008, when 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash got into and around the Emory River.
The hearing Thursday in Denver is the second of seven the Environmental Protection Agency is holding around the country on disposing of coal ash, which contains such substances as arsenic, cadmium and mercury.
Nationwide, annual coal ash generation has grown from 118 million tons in 2001 to 136 million tons in 2008, according to the EPA.
Regulations in the 45 states where it is generated aren't uniform, and the EPA is concerned that potential leaching from unlined and clay-lined landfills and ponds could harm groundwater or public health.
The agency has proposed requiring liners and groundwater monitoring at new coal ash landfills to protect groundwater and public health, among other measures, but it's trying to decide between two options for implementing the rules.
One option would regulate it as hazardous waste. It would allow for direct federal enforcement, but it could take several years to take effect while states adopt the changes.
The second option could be implemented within a matter of months after it is adopted, but it would rely on lawsuits by states and citizens for enforcement.
Thirty-five U.S. senators signed a letter in July supporting the latter, to regulate it under rules for non-hazardous waste. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has taken the same position.
Montana rancher Clint McRae favors direct federal enforcement. "If they go with the other option, it will be business as usual and nothing will get done," he said.
He fears his ranch could be harmed by leakage from nearby coal ash waste ponds at the Colstrip Power Plant run by PPL Montana, which has been dealing with contamination that started before it took over operations of the plant.
In 2008, PPL and four other companies paid $25 million to Colstrip residents whose water supplies were fouled by leaking ash ponds, and it is working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on guidelines to investigate and clean up seeping wastewater.
McRae says his ranch is still at risk, and that his cousin found elevated levels of boron and other substances at his neighboring ranch. McRae planned to speak at the hearing in Denver.
"What's at stake is one of the biggest valuable things we have, which is water," he said.
Coal ash isn't considered harmful when it's bound into products like concrete, roofing materials and bricks, and the EPA isn't looking to end those uses. But PPL Montana, the 35 senators and others contend concrete and roofing manufacturers will shy away from using coal ash if it is in any way regulated as hazardous.
PPL also is concerned that regulating coal ash as hazardous could force the Colstrip plant to truck waste hundreds of miles away to a landfill licensed to take it, PPL Corp., spokesman George Lewis said.
"We agree that there should be regulation of disposal of this material, but we can still protect the environment without adding undue economic burdens," Lewis said.