Tucson Electric Power Co. and other coal-burning Arizona utilities are opposing proposed federal rules that would designate coal ash as a hazardous waste, calling them costly and unnecessary.
Spurred by the disastrous failure of a dam holding back millions of cubic yards of wet coal ash in Tennessee in 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last month it was proposing for public comment two plans for regulating coal ash storage and disposal.
One set of proposed rules would designate coal ash as "special waste" and bring ash impoundments at coal-fired power plants under federal regulations governing hazardous waste.
Another option would keep coal ash regulated by state authorities, while adding national minimum standards for coal-ash storage and disposal, including mandatory lining of storage impoundments and groundwater monitoring.
Environmental groups say the hazardous-waste treatment of coal ash is long overdue, citing the risk of cancer and other health problems related to toxins in the coal waste. Coal ash contains toxic substances including mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
"It needs to be dealt with for what it is, a toxic substance and not something you can throw in your back yard and not worry about," said Rob Smith, Phoenix-based senior organizing manager for the Sierra Club.
But Arizona utilities say their facilities are safe and have opposed a move to label coal ash as hazardous.
Coal-ash storage ponds at two Arizona power plants - Arizona Public Service Co.'s Cholla Power Plant near Holbrook and Arizona Electric Power Cooperative's Apache plant near Willcox - are on an EPA list of sites with "high hazard" potential because of their proximity to populated areas and the attendant risk to human health.
But the utilities say current state regulation - which involves groundwater permits and monitoring and dam-safety inspections - is adequate, and classifying coal ash as hazardous could end or sharply curtail recycling of ash for use in making cement for concrete.
REGS could add to costs
Regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste would add significant costs that ultimately would be borne by ratepayers, utility officials say.
The proposal to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste - including converting to dry storage - would cost utilities an estimated $20 billion, the EPA says.
The exact cost to each utility is unknown.
"Our concern is the cost of compliance and a reduction in the market for recycling ash, because it really is a good system we have in place now," TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski said.
TEP generates about 1.3 million tons of coal ash annually at its Springerville Generating Station in eastern Arizona. It also generates about 30,000 tons per year in Tucson at the Sundt Generating Station, near East Irvington Road and Interstate 10.
Most of the ash generated at Sundt is hauled away for recycling, depending on demand for the material, Salkowski said. Ash from Sundt that is not recycled is transported for long-term storage in a dry landfill at Springerville.
All the ash from Springerville is stored in the on-site landfill, for lack of a market for ash from the relatively remote plant, Salkowski said.
The Springerville landfill is not considered a significant or high hazard by the EPA. Dry landfills are considered less of a risk than wet storage, and TEP regularly monitors groundwater at the landfill for contamination under its state aquifer permit, Salkowski noted.
no violations IN STATE
Arizona Electric Power Cooperative (AEPCO), which provides power to member co-ops including the Trico Electric Cooperative in the Tucson area, has seven lined ponds at its Apache plant that fall under the EPA's "high hazard" designation.
The impoundments have never had a major release or been found in violation of groundwater-protection rules, said Jim Andrew, AEPCO's manager of planning and regulatory affairs.
The "high hazard" designation comes from the fact that two homes are located downstream from the containment ponds, AEPCO noted. The EPA also cited the possible impact of a spill on nearby U.S. Highway 191.
AEPCO regularly monitors and inspects its ponds for leakage and is subject to inspection by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Andrew noted.
"We feel this facility is being run in a way that protects human health," he said.
The Department of Environmental Quality has not officially cited AEPCO for violations of the aquifer permit rules, but in December 2008 the agency issued the utility a "notice of opportunity to correct deficiencies" following a November inspection.
Inspectors found waste in one area piled higher than allowed, a leaky pump and improperly kept inspection records. The ADEQ closed the matter in June 2009, finding AEPCO in "substantial compliance" after correcting the problems.
Based on an EPA structural inspection of the Apache ponds in September, the facility earned a "satisfactory" rating, though the agency recommended improvements including repairs to several embankments, the addition of automatic pump controls and additional water-level sensors.
STATE opposes new reGS
The power co-op also is concerned about its ability to recycle coal ash under a hazardous-waste designation.
AEPCO recycles 85 to 100 percent of its coal ash through an on-site marketer who sends it via truck or rail to cement plants, Andrew said.
Arizona Public Service also is opposed to the hazardous-waste designation, which it fears could curtail ash recycling, spokesman Damon Gross said.
APS - which also got a "satisfactory" rating from the EPA after a structural inspection in September - recycles about 50 percent of the coal ash from its Cholla plant, Gross said.
State regulators also have weighed in to oppose new federal regulation of coal ash. "We don't see this as an issue in search of a national solution by designating coal ash as hazardous waste," ADEQ Director Ben Grumbles said.
Current state regulation is working well, he said.
Undercutting the market for recycling coal ash could do more harm than good, Grumbles said. "It's important we look at ways to reduce pollution, and continue to use coal ash in a beneficial ways," he said.
Besides ADEQ's oversight under aquifer-protection permits, the state Department of Water Resources regulates some dams used to contain coal-ash slurry in ponds.
The water agency - which regulates dams 25 feet tall or higher or that hold 50 acre-feet of water or more - has not cited any ash-pond operators for violations, said Mike Johnson, its assistant director and chief engineer.
However, Johnson said the agency conducts regular inspections and has prompted dam operators to beef up maintenance and monitoring in some cases.
Sierra Club concerned
The Sierra Club's Smith said he's less confident in state regulation, contending that states are typically more lax on environmental regulation than federal regulators. The absence of major coal-ash spills in Arizona is no reason for complacency, he added.
"Just because not much has happened doesn't mean it's not going to happen - the Gulf oil spill is a good example of that," Smith said.
The EPA's proposed rules, announced last month, are expected to be published in the Federal Register next week, kicking off a 90-day public-comment period after which EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will make a final decision.
In its notice of proposed rulemaking, the EPA specifically cited the December 2008 failure of a coal-ash impoundment dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston, Tenn., power plant that left 300 acres covered in sooty coal-ash muck.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.