Monthly Archives: March 2019

Environmental Stewardship Series: Part 1 of 3

Change is Coming – Solutions Must be Ready

  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes

Our planet, especially here in the southeastern and eastern U.S., is being subjected to an onslaught of extreme weather events, such as freak earthquakes, massive floods and devastating hurricanes.

These events generate a steady flow of new concerns about the environment. Protection against rising water levels, for example, the threat flooding poses to sites that store hazardous chemicals discussed by Bacon’s Rebellion, should have environmentalists actively seeking answers.

Adding to the already long list, more questions are being raised as to the adequacy and strength of traditional safeguards to manage these threats.

Hurricane Florence in 2018 brought epic rains to North Carolina, eroding earth covering a coal ash landfill at Duke Energy’s now-inactive L.V. Sutton Power Plant near Wilmington. This landfill was constructed according to current regulations. Those traditional construction methods couldn’t contain the coal ash as water reached over the berm. This caused water-laced coal ash to flow beyond containment.

Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance Inc

At another coal ash site near the Waccamaw River in response to Florence, an inflatable dam was constructed to stop flooding from breaching the coal ash containment. But any inflatable structure can only be a temporary fix, at best.

These are just a few examples of new complications that current safeguard methodology can’t address. Innovation is needed to facilitate recovery from natural disasters, which are more frequent and catastrophic and reach farther inland as time goes on.

Innovative environmental stewardship is the answer.

Another U.S. environmental disaster 2,193 miles from the mainland is a perfect cautionary tale because it’s not a far-fetch possibility for many communities here. The territory of Puerto Rico is an island where many solid waste landfills already exceed capacity. Hurricane Maria in 2017 exposed a deadly CCR-related public health crisis that began unfolding in 2002, when AES Corporation began contaminating soil and groundwater by dumping over 2 million tons of coal ash without basic safeguards while producing only about 17% of the electrical power. The hurricane churned up the toxins, so the island now needs to find a safe CCR disposition strategy in addition to extending capacity for solid waste disposal. Macroencapsulation could solve both problems.

We must think beyond worst-case. These weather events are so severe that we’ve labeled them “thousand-year storms” on the assumption that such catastrophes typically happen only once every thousand years. But they’re becoming annual rituals in the U.S.

Much more stringent and lasting remediation is needed now by building protective structures that keep waste in and/or water out.

Macroencapsulation is an innovative solution that resolves multiple issues. For example, with long-term CCR disposition, instead of going low – such as digging ditches around coal ash ponds that are susceptible to overflowing, either by coal ash seeping out or encroaching waters seeping in – we need to go high.

We have plenty of CCR just lying around; it can be used as fill in fully lined macroencapsulated berms, bunkers, levees or dikes constructed around coal ash ponds, waste landfills or rivers bordering chemical facilities. This fulfills the dual needs of rendering the ash inert and untouchable by the elements and reclaims the land once occupied by coal ash ponds or solid waste for new uses. In addition, it protects that reclaimed land from any nearby rivers and lakes that may flood.

Instead of grasping for creative, limited or more costly methods of storm preparation, facilities can often implement foolproof macroencapsulated solutions, protecting the land against rising waters.

Some states have started to embrace these challenges, enhancing the importance of sound environmental stewardship in their communities.

It’s a win-win strategy from every perspective .

Legacy CCR Series: Part 6 of 6

Hey, Power Industry, Welcome to the Waste Industry!

The unbreakable thread running through all arguments about CCR over the years is this: CCR is waste. Like any waste, it should adhere to a certain methodology that has been developed by the waste industry.

The U.S. waste industry has structured its business model around the EPA’s nonhazardous waste management hierarchy for years. The hierarchy dictates reducing, reusing and recycling most wastes – all key components of the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program (SMM).

Source: EPA

To quote the EPA, the SMM “is an effort to protect the environment and conserve resources for future generations through a systems approach that seeks to reduce materials use and their associated environmental impacts over their entire life cycles, starting with extraction of natural resources and product design and ending with decisions on recycling or final disposal.”

Coal ash is a natural fit in the waste management hierarchy, and the EPA expects utilities to play by its rules for CCR disposition. Recycling CCRs into building materials is currently the preferred method, but we’ve discussed its inherent limitations in previous posts.

Many utilities consider disposal, the last resort environmentally, the most expedient solution because it’s relatively easy to accomplish compared to all other accepted methods. However, public perception has evolved to realize that this is the most impractical solution, and it’s rightly the least preferred method in the EPA hierarchy. Airspace in the United States is dwindling, and the fastest way to put landfilling in crisis mode is to add this waste stream to it.

This impasse could be overcome if CCR producers would only partner more with the waste industry, which has the expertise in formulating creative disposition methods. For example, CCR contamination hazards could be negated through macroencapsulation in berms and bunkers constructed for land reclamation projects.

Taking this single approach could eliminate the need to find outlets for recycling, remove the necessity of dangerously transporting CCR long distances on public thruways, give the CCR a safe, final resting place AND make it a beneficial contribution to land reclaimed for new, productive use.

No matter how you parse it, CCR is a hazardous waste. Instead of minimizing the risks it poses, utilities would do better to take a page from the waste industry’s playbook on landfill management and cooperate on ways to put CCR to constructive uses that have long-term benefits.

This is the last post of our Legacy CCR Series. Our goal was to share some of our experiences with this multifaceted issue confronting all stakeholders today. The simplified approach in writing these messages was not to diminish the complexities of dealing with every coal ash pond, each of which poses its own unique challenges, but to provide a starting point for such discussions, which are taking place across the nation.