Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
Public universities to monitor groundwater at coal ash dump site
The state’s three largest public universities will begin a groundwater-monitoring program at a quarry in Waterloo that they each use as a coal ash dump.
The announcement that the schools will conduct groundwater testing comes a little more than a month after publicly saying they were confident their disposal methods were safe.
The monitoring program, a response to concerns expressed by school administrators, will begin in January and will be paid for by all three schools.
“The utility folks at each school ultimately made the decision,” said Jeffrey Witt, assistant director of utilities at Iowa State University. “Primarily it was a decision to satisfy the curiosity and concerns of the administration.”
As The Iowa Independent has reported in recent months, the schools — Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa — are some of the biggest producers of coal ash in the state. All three dispose of their ash in a quarry in Waterloo that received a waiver from the Department of Natural Resources allowing it to accept ash without installing a protective liner and without conducting groundwater monitoring.
Environmentalists and students had been highly critical of the schools for using this disposal method. Because coal ash contains high concentrations of elements such as mercury, zinc, lead, arsenic and selenium, dumping it into a quarry with no liner could result in contaminants leaching out into groundwater supplies, they contend. And with no groundwater-monitoring program, there is no way of knowing whether that is already taking place.
The state began drafting stricter rules on coal ash disposal last year, but coal producers and disposal site owners – along with the University of Iowa — derailed the process. The state is now waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to unveil new federal rules, something expected by the end of the year.
Those federal rules are also part of the schools’ motivation for beginning to test groundwater for contaminants.
“Basically, we know whatever new regulations come out are going to require groundwater monitoring at the very least,” Witt said. “So we figure we would just get a head start on that.”
Witt said the groundwater testing would follow standard procedures for a typical landfill, including monitoring wells both upstream and downstream from the quarry. The samples will be taken by the operator of the quarry, BMC Aggregates, and turned over to a certified lab for analysis.
The results of the testing would eventually be turned over to the state DNR after new regulations are passed. Until then, Witt expects the data to be kept from the public.
“Ultimately, the DNR will receive the data, once it becomes a requirement,” Witt said.
The schools’ practice of dumping coal ash into an unlined, unmonitored quarry had garnered them a lot of criticism. Peter Taglia, a hydrogeologist with environmental watchdog Clean Wisconsin who worked for five years as a consultant for utilities, said last month that it was odd that institutions with “a mandate to serve the public” would engage in an activity other states have determined is dangerous enough to prohibit.
In Wisconsin, all coal ash disposal sites are mandated to have protective liners and conduct groundwater monitoring. 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, Taglia said.
Lucie Laurian, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa who has spent years studying the effects of toxic sites on local populations, said even if initial tests come back showing no contamination, the sites could still pose a huge public health risk.
“The ash is still sitting there,” she said. “Contamination might not show up for many years, and that’s the problem.”
ActivUs, a student environmental and social justice organization on the Iowa State campus, has been pressing the school’s administration for weeks to alter its coal ash disposal methods. Tyler Rygg, the group’s treasurer, said he was happy to hear that the “unlined, unmonitored” site will now just be “unlined.”
“It’s a step in the process of our school being more responsible,” he said. “At least now we can get some information.”
But the group will not stop pressing the school for an end to the practice. Leaders of the organization have a meeting Oct. 2 with ISU President Gregory Geoffroy. At that time, the students will discuss their long-term goal of phasing out the school’s coal ash plant altogether. In the short run, the students hope the school can begin the process of phasing out usage of the Waterloo dump site.
“We hope on that day we can get him to make a commitment to begin to do some real changes,” Rygg said. “We’ve found that 25 percent of the ash we produce goes to other uses. We’d like to see that number increase.”
Iowa State University’s coal plant produces 30,000 tons of ash every year, with 75 percent of that total going to the Waterloo quarry and the rest going to other uses such as cement manufacture, manufactured compost materials and soil stabilization applications.