Eco-Risks of Coal Ash as Mine Fill Understated
Pennsylvania Auditor General Asked to Investigate State Agencies’ Inaction
Washington, DC — Pennsylvania has turned a blind eye to the environmental and health risks of using coal combustion wastes to reclaim old coal mines, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which is asking the state Auditor General to look at alleged dereliction of duties by two state agencies. The Commonwealth now pursues a policy of so-called “beneficial use” of combustion wastes (coal ash) from power plants and kilns by pouring these wastes down abandoned mines despite severe water pollution, toxic vapor and even fire dangers.
PEER is targeting the principal report used to win state regulatory approval by minimizing concerns about using coal ash as mine fill – The Use of Dredged Materials in Abandoned Mine Reclamation based on the Bark Camp Demonstration Project. A hydro-geologic expert, Robert Gadinski, filed a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of State in April 2008 about the lack of qualifications of the author of the Bark Camp report, under laws requiring state licensure for geologic consulting work in Pennsylvania. Two and a half years later, the Department has yet to act on Gadinski’s complaint.
In addition, Gadinski prepared a detailed critique of the Bark Camp report detailing –
- High prospects of groundwater pollution, as well as contamination of connected surface waters;
- Generation of toxic vapors in mine shafts; and
- Underground combustion of coal ash wastes.
“Coal ash consists of the concentrated pollutants that we prevent from going out power-plant smokestacks and it is extremely toxic,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the U.S, Environmental Protection Agency is now pondering regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste and discouraging un-encapsulated coal ash from coming into direct contact with water sources. “Filling coal mines with coal ash is akin to letting nuclear reactors throw their spent fuel rods down abandoned uranium mines and calling it a beneficial use.”
Gadinski also filed complaints and reports with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), arguing that its reliance on the Bark Camp report was imprudent and legally questionable, yet the agency continues to permit coal ash use in mine reclamation based on the report’s findings. Today, PEER requested that the state Auditor General conduct a “performance audit” on both the Department of State for failure to enforce licensure laws and on the DEP for issuing reclamation permits on the basis of illegitimate and unreliable information amassed from an individual unauthorized to practice geology, despite documented pollution and public health concerns.
“State agencies which neglect their core duties need to be called to account,” added Ruch, pointing out that the Auditor General has a broad purview of investigatory authority that includes both specific cases and patterns of misconduct. “Pennsylvania should be concerned that it is taking the problem of un-reclaimed coal mines and making it worse by filling them with hazardous materials. This is definitely a case where the Commonwealth is in a hole and should stop digging.”