Ashes to Ashes | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 21, 2014 News » Cover Story

Ashes to Ashes 

In the heart of coal country, Utahns worry about a toxic mountain of pollution

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Though much maligned for its invasion into the air Utahns breathe, carbon is an element that is everywhere, throughout the earth and in all living creatures. In the human body, it’s the second most abundant element, right after oxygen. And in the heart of Utah’s Carbon County, carbon—the primary stuff of coal—is the lifeblood of the residents and the hardscrabble communities formed to mine the black gold that has powered the world for generations.

Utahns en route to Moab from the north for some fun in the sun can’t miss the telltale signs of coal country: the coal-filled train cars snaking up Price Canyon; the billboard outside Helper advertising the “World’s Tallest Coal Miner” statue; and the billboard outside Price with a picture of a stoic, soot-stained miner holding a chunk of the black stuff under the declaration COAL=JOBS.

Most passersby won’t get much of a glimpse of the frontline of these mining communities as they continue on Highway 6. But if you take a detour 20 miles east of Price, you’ll find the side-by-side communities of East Carbon and Sunnyside. Like everywhere else in the county, coal is king in these two towns. But for some, it comes at too high a cost.

East Carbon has supported itself on several adjacent mines as well as the coal-fired power plant in Sunnyside, roughly a mile east of town. It’s a small and hardy community born of the coalmining boom, and it’s always prospered on coal, while other enterprises struggled to take hold. A drive into town reveals a vacant drive-in cafe and the New Yorker Grill, which optimistically has “Open” painted on the window despite being empty inside except for stacks of dusty chairs and tables. A simple gas station in the center of town is one of the few businesses that’s alive and well.

More than 1,000 residents live here, in neighborhoods lined with homes that vary from rundown sheet-metal shacks to well-groomed pre-fabricated dwellings. Bleached bones and elk antlers decorate homes, and the brown dirt and yellow grass of vacant lots is punctuated by lavender patches of ironweed.

Overall, it’s an attractive town, except when it’s covered in a fine film of dust blown off the nearby coal-ash landfill.

Sunnyside is home to a coal-fired power plant that burns the refuse from two abandoned coalmines that operated in the area for more than a century into what’s known as coal ash, a gritty gray substance.

Coal ash is a byproduct of the fossil-fuel industry that’s less visible to the general public, which has long been focused on the hazards of carbon emissions in the air. But it’s lately drawn scrutiny from environmental scientists, who say the heavy metals in coal ash—such as arsenic, lead and selenium—can contribute to cancer and developmental and neurological disabilities in humans.

And every day in Sunnyside, 18-wheeler trucks haul up to 1,000 tons of coal ash into the 75-acre landfill, building a giant ziggurat-shaped pile of ash inch by inch, day by day.

It’s possible to drive down State Road 123, which leads into town, and miss the Sunnyside Cogeneration Association landfill, built in 1992, entirely. Still, residents say, they see all they need to of the dust—and breathe it, too—when the wind picks up and blows ash off the pile and into town.

“I think our town sold its soul to the devil to have the power plant be so close to our community,” says Gabriel Hunt, a 33-year-old East Carbon resident.

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Hunt isn’t your conventional activist rallying against big polluters. He took time to speak to a City Weekly reporter after finishing an all-night shift at a coalmine more than an hour north of East Carbon. He’s not against coal, but he is against the company’s decision to burn it, pile it and let it potentially contaminate the groundwater where his two children live and play.

While Utahns in Salt Lake County curse the carbon emissions hanging in the winter air like clouds of gravy, in places like East Carbon and Sunnyside, the concern is more about the gunk on the ground. And as the public places more pressure on the fossil-fuel industry to clean up the emissions in the air, more risk could be absorbed by communities like East Carbon and Sunnyside.

The most hazardous parts of carbon emissions can’t be eliminated entirely, so “cleaning up” dirty carbon emissions means that they’re simply displaced—instead of going into the air, the emissions are filtered and transferred to the coal ash, which ends up in landfills like the one in East Carbon.

In January, on behalf of town residents like Hunt, HEAL Utah helped file an administrative complaint against the Utah Department of Water Quality for approving a 34-acre expansion of the Sunnyside Cogeneration Associates landfill.

HEAL Utah is not only concerned about the health effects of the landfill but also questions why state regulators would approve the groundwater permit even though the legally required public-comment period didn’t include relevant information about the hazards of the existing landfills.

It wasn’t until December 2013, four months after the public-comment period on the groundwater permit ended, that HEAL Utah received documents through a public-records request that they say show the existing landfill is contaminating the groundwater. Now, HEAL is asking not only that the groundwater permit for the expansion be invalidated, but also that the existing coal-ash pile be relocated because of its contamination of local aquifers.

When it comes to the expansion, HEAL says, the state should at least follow statutory requirements to use “the best technology available to minimize the discharge of any pollutant.” Scientists who have studied coal-ash landfills have found that simple liners can dramatically protect the groundwater beneath the waste piles, yet the state approved the expansion to be unlined, like the existing landfill.

If coal power is the dirty and addictive energy source to the economy—the way a cigarette is to a smoker—a liner on an ash landfill is at least an ashtray. Critics say not requiring a liner is like letting a smoker drop ash in your glass of water.

Heavy Metal
It usually takes a catastrophe for policymakers to snap into action. With coal ash, it took a dam bursting in Tennessee in 2008 that flooded a river valley with 1 billion gallons of toxic slime for policymakers to ... almost do something.

The dam break unleashed its own flood of outrage about the unregulated landfills, which are as widespread as coal-power plants across the country but aren’t federally regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2010, in the wake of the 2008 coal-ash calamity in Tennessee, the EPA proposed new regulations that faced heavy resistance from the coal lobby and politicians like West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley, who passed legislation in 2013 to block the EPA from regulating coal ash, arguing that recycled coal ash is a valuable recycled product and that regulating it would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Hundreds of other coal-ash spills have been reported since 2008, from small and troubling to large and ecologically devastating, such as when a pipe burst at a wet coal-ash landfill in North Carolina and pumped 82,000 gallons of coal ash into a river used as a source of drinking water for the residents of Danville, Va., 20 miles upstream.

In 2012, the Sierra Club and a coalition of other groups sued the EPA for violating its own statutes by not offering guidelines on coal ash, prompting the agency to announce that new rules and regulations will be issued by the end of 2014.

Coal ash, which is often comprised of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, has long been known to cause deformations in wildlife and cancer and neurological damage in humans. Lead poisoning, for example, can cause developmental delays, impaired hearing and male reproductive impairment. The nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility issued a report in conjunction with advocates of EarthFirst—one of a group of plaintiffs that sued the EPA in 2012—highlighting some of the horror stories of people who had come too close to coal ash.

And the report pointed out that while broken dams often make big headlines, “the most common threat that coal ash poses to public health comes from a less dramatic scenario: the slow leakage of toxic pollution from disposal sites such as ponds and landfills.”

HEAL Utah’s complaint against the Utah Division of Water Quality for its approval of the expansion of the Sunnyside landfill includes residents’ descriptions of the ash blowing into town and covering cars, lawns and homes in a film of sooty dust. One resident mentioned seeing dead animals floating in ponds near the plant and questioned the safety of another ash landfill so close to town.

Four East Carbon and Sunnyside residents added their names to HEAL Utah’s official complaint, filed Jan. 6, 2014, but declined to comment on the advice of their attorneys, who felt comments to the media would jeopardize their action against the state.

Hunt, who is not an official declarant on HEAL’s petition, says the trucks carrying the ash are another problem.

“You get behind one of those semis on the highway, and more often than not, you can see the ash and the emissions coming out of the back of their trucks,” Hunt says. Because the ash is super hot when hauled, it has to be mixed with a water slurry for transportation, and that can blow out the back of the trucks as they drive through town and down the hill to the entrance of the landfill.

“There’s no way to know what that is they’re going down the highway with,” Hunt says, asking, “When you get a big wind, how much of that goes into the air we breathe?”

Those who’ve spoken out against the landfill cite fear of a public health hazard; no one who has talked with HEAL cited specific illnesses. But HEAL doesn’t want to wait for a health catastrophe, especially after it enlisted the help of a Brigham Young University geology professor who says that the landfill is contaminating the groundwater with dangerous—and illegal—levels of toxic pollutants.

Natural Spikes
The environmental advocates of HEAL Utah check the state’s online database of groundwater-permit applications the way some people check Facebook. On Aug. 5, 2013, staff came across a permit application for the renewal and expansion of the Sunnyside Cogeneration Associates (SCA) landfill in East Carbon. At the time, it was open to public comment until Aug. 22, 2013. HEAL Utah asked for the public comment period to be extended while it researched the proposal with the collaboration of environmental attorneys.

A representative of Exelon, the energy company that owns the SCA power plant, wouldn’t comment on specific concerns about the coal ash plan other than to say that all technical questions would be addressed during the groundwater permit application process.

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The Utah Department of Water Quality (DWQ) denied Heal’s request for an extension. HEAL Utah filed a public-records request Aug. 9 for information pertaining to the expansion of the landfill. The DWQ responded to the request Aug. 28—six days after the end of the public comment period—and gave HEAL permission to access and make copies of additional information. The additional information from the DWQ, HEAL says, was a 2007 report from one of the monitoring wells dug to check the groundwater adjacent to the landfill for potential contaminants.

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HEAL filed public comments complaining of inadequate information made available to the public. Then, HEAL says, on Dec. 4, the DWQ posted 16 additional monitoring-well reports onto its website. HEAL quickly dug into the reports and had Brigham Young University geologist Steve Nelson begin crunching the numbers and analyzing the data. But only two days later, on Dec. 6, 2013, the DWQ gave Sunnyside Cogeneration Associates the go-ahead to move forward with expansion.

Walter Baker, director of the DWQ, says there was “no shortcut in the process,” and that it’s not uncommon for permit applications to not include all the data the division has about a particular groundwater application.

“Not everything is on the website,” Baker says. “If someone would like additional information that would not normally be included in the process, they can request it.”

Baker says his agency “bent over backwards” to provide as much information as possible about this permit.

But HEAL says the 16 additional reports were vital—and also incredibly late, too late to be included in comments that could have informed the public’s opinion before the expansion was approved.

At the heart of the debate over the future of SCA’s big pile of ash is whether this landfill poses any peril to the groundwater beneath. The landfill lacks a liner to separate the hundreds of thousands of tons of ash from the groundwater below, but the site is bounded by a layer of Mancos shale, which, DWQ says, acts as a barrier against contaminants leaching into the groundwater. The new expansion will also utilize sediment traps to collect drainage running from the benched slopes of the expanded landfill to the bottom of the disposal area.

When HEAL obtained the additional monitoring reports—three months after the end of the public-comment period—they turned them over to BYU’s Nelson, who used the different well reports to compare the chemicals appearing outside the landfill with those occurring right under it. The DWQ says that there are a number of chemicals that could be considered contaminates registered in the area, but says that those chemicals occur naturally.

But according to HEAL’s complaint, Nelson’s analysis—which he carried out independently and is not affiliated with BYU—shows that three troublesome chemicals—chloride, sulfate and TDS or “total dissolved solids”—maintained a steady concentration outside of the landfill, but within the landfill’s 1,000-meter boundary, these chemicals “dramatically” spiked. His spatial analysis shows concentrations five to seven times higher within the landfill’s boundaries compared with outside it. For TDS, for example, Nelson found that 13 of 30 reported values from DWQ’s own data show the landfill being out of compliance.

In HEAL’s complaint, Nelson says SCA’s existing landfill is in “chronic violation” of its allowable contamination limits for TDS alone.

The DWQ has not yet responded to Nelson’s analysis of the groundwater, but said in response to public comments that spikes of noncompliance of certain chemical concentrations aren’t the giant pile’s fault, but are just part of the natural geological landscape, including the effect of six years of drought in the area.

Nelson’s comparison of reports from wells under the pile and outside of it challenges that assumption, according to HEAL’s complaint. If drought were to cause spikes within the landfill, then, logically, spikes would occur outside of it as well, and at a similar rate—but they don’t.

Nelson compared the wells with Whitmore Springs, which is upstream from the pile, and found drastic differences even during times of drought. Nelson’s data shows increases by a factor of nearly seven in chloride and sulfate from a monitoring well under the landfill compared to sources outside it.

While the biggest spikes appeared to be in TDS, chloride and sulfate, Nelson’s research also sounded a warning about four different monitoring wells under the pile that are spiking out of legal compliance for reported concentrations of selenium. While not as significant as the others, selenium can take a nasty toll on animals that ingest it, and the ill effects of too much of the trace element can be passed up the food chain. If humans take in too much selenium through eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, there is a danger of acquiring selenosis—a nasty ailment that can cause hair loss, gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue and even neurological impairment.

The “protection value,” or upper limit, of allowable selenium pollution established in the permit for these groundwater wells is .0125 per liter of water. Nelson found that Whitmore Springs, uphill from the pile, never exceeded this limit even during the drought period, whereas “up to 41 percent of [selenium] concentrations in monitoring wells are out of compliance with the protection limit.”

Incomplete Data
It’s not just the analyzed data that Nelson and HEAL found troubling, but also the unknown factors.

Though Sunnyside Cogeneration Associates first got approved for its coal ash landfill in 1992, the earliest publicly available reports are from 1998, six years after the pile started building up.

But while the existing landfill is monitored by five wells, only one monitoring well has been dug to monitor the groundwater for the expansion—which, when completed, will cover 34 acres and be within two miles of town.

The SCA expansion will also lack a monitoring well that’s upgradient, meaning there won’t be an upstream monitoring well to compare with the well on the site of the new ash pile.

DWQ scientist Daniel Hall said in an e-mail that “the uphill cliff topography also does not allow for access to an up-gradient well location.” Hall also wrote that the same number of monitoring wells wasn’t needed for the expansion because the agency is more knowledgeable about coal ash than it was previously.

“When the first ash landfill was permitted over 20 years ago, less was known about the leaching potential of the coal ash, the site hydrogeology and natural background quality of the underlying aquifer,” he wrote.

But Nelson says in the HEAL complaint that there’s no documentation of the first six years of monitoring. The complaint says that if DWQ has learned enough about coal-ash contamination in the past 20 years to justify less monitoring of a new landfill, then the homework should prove it—not just to HEAL, but to the public and the people of Sunnyside and East Carbon.

Hall says that permits can always be re-opened and considered after passage if new data finds inaccurate readings of groundwater quality. But Nelson’s report, however, contradicts this sentiment, given his assessment of the DWQ’s own reports that found drought-defying spikes of illegal and hazardous groundwater contamination.

In his brief to the DWQ, Nelson concludes, “The strong evidence of releases from SCA #1 that have not been recognized and addressed by DWQ is disturbing.”

It’s Not Your Backyard
It can sometimes be difficult for environmental advocates to make people appreciate how often they use resources—water, dirt, air—that are so widely available and are easily taken for granted. And when it comes to coal ash, HEAL supporters need a bunch of Salt Lakers to care about a landfill hundreds of miles away that won’t directly impact them.

For HEAL director Chris Thomas, coal ash is just another part of an industry that provides the power for most of Utah. While Rocky Mountain Power doesn’t own Sunnyside Cogeneration Associates, it does buy its power and, according to a 2013 Integrated Resource Plan for PacifiCorp—the company that owns Rocky Mountain Power—the company does operate 16 “coal combustion byproduct” surface impoundments and six landfills.

“We buy power from Rocky Mountain Power, and the Sunnyside coal plant provides some of that power,” Thomas says. “So while most of us are blissfully ignorant in some ways about where our power comes from and what effect it has, it’s not so for those people who live in East Carbon and Sunnyside ... they’re impacted on a daily basis by it.

“We should know what’s going on down there and ask for it to change,” he continues.

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Hunt, a coal miner, understands firsthand the importance of balancing jobs with regulations that can stifle rural economies. But when it comes to the coal-power plant and the truckers who haul the sizzling ash through town to the landfill, it’s easy to draw a clear line when it means having another 34 acres of ash landfill within two miles of town—jobs or no jobs.

“There are some who might be able to look past what the corporation they work for does, because it’s not affecting their kids,” Hunts says. “But you don’t have an ash dump a mile away from the place where you ride bikes with your kids. It’s just not right.”

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