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Iowa universities will not alter coal ash disposal practices
Iowa’s three largest public universities have determined that their coal ash disposal method does not pose a risk to the public health, a decision some say was made without sufficient evidence or regard for experiences with contamination in neighboring states.
At least one expert said he is baffled that institutions with “a mandate to serve the public” would engage in an activity other states have determined is dangerous enough to prohibit.
The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are among the state’s biggest producers of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal combustion. All three schools dispose of their ash in an unlined, unmonitored former quarry in Waterloo that received a waiver from the state in 2002 allowing it to use the ash as fill in its reclamation process.
Last month, both the University of Iowa and Iowa State vowed to look into their dumping procedures to ensure they did not pose a threat to public health. Environmentalists argue that because the sites are not required to install protective liners, and because the state does not mandate groundwater monitoring, the chances that toxins like arsenic, mercury and boron could leach off the site and poison groundwater supplies is very high.
Officials with the DNR acknowledged to the Iowa Independent that contamination could already be occurring and the state would have no way of knowing, and a recent EPA report noted elevated cancer risks for those living near these types of dump sites.
Jeffrey Witt, assistant director of utilities at Iowa State, said all three universities spoke with the owner of the Waterloo quarry, BMC Aggregates (formerly Basic Materials Corp.) and determined from the visit that their coal ash disposal methods are safe.
“We talked at length with Basic Materials staff and reviewed operations at the quarry,” Witt said. “I am confident that our ash disposal methods are sound.”
Carrie La Seur, president of the Cedar Rapids environmental law center Plains Justice, said the approach the universities have taken shows the problems caused by Iowa’s decision to allow the coal combustion waste industry to regulate itself.
“Who decides if disposal practices should be reviewed? The coal combustion waste industry,” she said. “Who reviews practices? The coal combustion waste industry. Who participates in meetings, contributes data, approves review protocols and reaches conclusions about sufficiency of data and analysis? The coal combustion waste industry.
Despite the fact that these are public universities, and that this deals with a potential threat to the public health, the process of deciding to continue using the quarry as a dump site was not subject to open records or meetings laws and the results of any inquiry are not publicized, La Seur said.
“Do we have any way to verify anything claimed by the coal combustion waste industry? No,” she said.
The Waterloo quarry is one of four sites around Iowa that received a beneficial use waiver from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowing it to accept ash without following landfill standards. Witt said the site is safe because its “alkaline nature minimizes any potential for leaching.” He also said the staff ensured university representatives that periodic groundwater monitoring performed by BMC has never shown any evidence of leaching.
However, Witt could not say how often, if ever, groundwater testing was performed, nor could he discuss any geological characteristics of the site. Sherman Lundy, a geologist for BMC, did not respond to several requests for comment by the Iowa Independent.
Chad Stobbe, a senior environmental specialist and the Iowa DNR’s lead staffer on coal ash issues, said BMC has “made reference to testing” of groundwater in the past, but because beneficial use sites are not required to monitor for groundwater contamination, “it is uncertain whether the water sampling being conducted at BMC provides data sufficient to determine potential routes of contaminant migration via groundwater.”
Stobbe also said there has never been a soil or hydrogeologic investigation, so even basic information about the site, such as direction of groundwater flow, is not known.
Peter Taglia, a hydrogeologist with environmental watchdog Clean Wisconsin who worked for five years as a consultant for utilities, said he can’t believe the state allows sites to accept a toxic waste stream with so little geological information.
In an interview with the Iowa Independent last month, Taglia discussed how important groundwater monitoring is at coal ash dump sites, saying that even the most state-of-the-art facility runs the risk of toxins leaching out. If caught early, the risk to public health is low.
Unlined coal ash sites are not allowed in Wisconsin.
After hearing of the university’s determination that its methods pose no risk to public health, Taglia was surprised.
“Isn’t it imprudent of a public university to take these risks when its obvious that adjacent states have found the risks to be real and worthy of greater scrutiny?” he said, adding: “The argument from the university against [groundwater] monitoring is even more curious given that these organizations are publicly funded and have a mandate to serve the public.”
At a minimum, the university should put together a report documenting where the monitoring wells are located, what is known about the local geology and the direction of the groundwater flows in the area, Taglia said
The only geological data available to the public about the Waterloo quarry is a short letter filed with the DNR in 2002. It contains some information about the soil at the site and the quarry’s proximity to the underlying aquifer and any nearby residences.
Taglia reviewed the material for the Iowa Independent and said that, if accurate, the risk to groundwater supplies by disposing of ash in the Waterloo quarry is low. However, it is not zero.
“It’s still hard to tell if there is any danger to the public,” he said. “This information is useful but it boggles my mind that they haven’t put together a report with cross-sections, existing well information, etc., so that others can see the information.”
In Wisconsin, a big exporter of coal ash to Iowa due to the Hawkeye State’s lax regulations, two-year’s data about groundwater quality and flow is required for any coal ash dump sites, with minimum quarterly samples in order to observe seasonal changes. All this is reported to the state DNR, which oversees the entire process.
The cost for the initial installation of monitoring wells and preparing a monitoring plan would be high, probably in the six figures, Taglia said. But ongoing monitoring would be much less expensive, especially since there are specialized subcontractors that do nothing but monitoring well sampling and testing.
However, the costs of a contaminated well and the legal implications of doing nothing are also large, Taglia said.
A recent study by the Institute for Policy Integrity (IPI), a non-partisan think tank based in New York City, found the benefits of upgrading disposal sites would exceed the costs of tougher regulations by almost 10 to 1. And since beneficial use sites are not mandated to provide financial assurances that they can pay for possible contamination, the cost any clean up could eventually be passed on to taxpayers.
In other states where groundwater has been contaminated, sites have been excavated and bottled water was trucked in because wells were poisoned and undrinkable. In July 2007, the EPA had confirmed 24 cases in 13 states where coal ash has compromised water quality.
La Seur said because no state agency is involved, the public is completely shut out of a process that could have a major effect on their health.
“Does this sound like the way Iowans want their drinking water protected?” she said. “Probably not, but because there is no way for the public to be involved, Iowans don’t even know this is going on.”