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Piles of coal waste are contaminating Utah water, soil, environmental group says

First Published      Last Updated Oct 29 2015 12:47 pm

Pollution » Environmentalists send letter to Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, saying waste has been contaminating water.

Huntington • Millions of tons of coal ash waste stored near a central Utah power plant have been contaminating nearby water resources for years in violation of federal environmental laws, according to an investigation led by an environmental group.

According to a letter HEAL Utah's lawyer sent to the company's parent, PacifiCorp, last week, Rocky Mountain Power is illegally impounding water that flows from two canyons and picks up dangerous pollutants produced from burning coal in the Huntington Power Plant.

"They botched the disposal operation from the start. They throw the waste into unlined landfills that have leaked all over the place," said attorney Richard Webster of the nonprofit law firm Public Justice. "They have a number of [state] permits in place that should have addressed this issue. Instead of enforcing these conditions, the state allowed them to move the contamination around."

The utility contends the HEAL allegations are the based on incorrect assumptions.

"Concerns raised that are actual issues have been identified because they are available in the public records, having been reported by PacifiCorp to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality," the utility said in a prepared statement. "These issues have been addressed or are currently being addressed with the oversight of the Department of Environmental Quality. PacifiCorp continues to ensure that the facility remains in compliance with the recently finalized coal combustion residual rules and all requirements of the Clean Water Act."

Each year, Huntington generates about 320,000 tons of coal ash, a powdery waste rich in boron, arsenic, lead, cadmium and other toxic heavy metals. Technically known as coal combustion residuals, this ash is the nation's largest waste stream of hazardous substances, totaling 121 million tons last year.

RMP's management practices have contaminated the groundwater near the two-unit 960-megawatt plant, which has operated at the mouth of Huntington Canyon in Emery County since 1973, the letter alleges. Contamination escapes into Huntington Creek, whose water quality is already classified as impaired.

The 13-page letter is a notice of intent to file a citizen suit seeking to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. If PacifiCorp does not take steps to contain and cleanup the pollution in the next few months, HEAL and the Sierra Club will file suit in U.S. District Court.

The letter also highlights a pile of pulverized coal covering 30 acres of utility property on the other side of Huntington Creek from the plant. There are no structures or berms to contain runoff from the pile, which is shedding coal dust onto lands surrounding the fenced property.

HEAL executive director Matt Pacenza discovered the coal pile last May while on a trip looking into the coal-ash contamination.

"One of us turned around and thought, 'What the hell is that?' It is instantly apparent the utility just doesn't care if its product is blanketing the land and water," Pacenza said during a return visit a week ago. "You can see black rivers that have flowed down from a pile that doesn't have the vaguest hint of storm water protections. Here we have tons of coal above a creek that is already in trouble, and it doesn't look like they put a penny or any thought into safeguarding the public from the runoff."

To make his point, he picked up handfuls of the black grains that had gathered in a wash down-gradient from the pile, itself incised where rainwater had eroded runnels down its 20-foot-high flanks. He let the coal pour from his hand to show how concentrated the powder was.

RMP says coal has been stockpiled at this location since 2007 and it currently holds 620,000 tons.

"The site is permitted by the state and managed in compliance with environmental regulations. Its purpose is to hold a coal stockpile for Huntington plant for both inventory and blending for overall fuel quality," RMP spokesman Dave Eskelsen wrote in an email.

Utah's largest utility, RMP relies heavily on coal to generate electricity, though its portfolio has been shifting toward natural gas and renewable sources in recent years.

New federal rules take effect Monday governing the management of coal ash.

Until this year, the Utah DEQ had no authority to regulate coal ash, according to Scott Anderson, director of the agency's waste management division. But lawmakers reclassified it this year as a "solid waste" to enable DEQ to impose its own rules on Utah utilities and other coal-ash generators.

The agency is now drafting rules, but in the meantime, Utah coal ash will fall under the new federal rules.

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