Coal Ash Wednesday: Go get 'em, Avner

Duke professor to address EPA over coal ash deregulation:

Nearly six years after a busted drainage pipe at a Duke Energy coal ash containment pond turned the Dan River into an oily sludge, the Trump administration is considering a move to roll back some of the Obama-era rules that ban the disposal of coal ash in soil or pits and landfills that aren't lined to protect the environment.

At his Duke University lab, ABC11 caught up with the geochemistry professor headed to the EPA hearing about the issue scheduled for Wednesday morning. Avner Vengosh told ABC11 he's going in hopes of convincing the agency to keep the protections in place. "My coming to EPA is to bring the science," said Vengosh. "Demonstrating that putting coal ash without restrictions is a really bad idea."

Professor Vengosh and his graduate students at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment have done groundbreaking work on contaminants that threaten water quality. They're the ones who (finally) proved the Methane contamination of drinking water wells actually originated from the shale being fracked miles below, by looking at the isotopic signature. So we should all be inclined to pay attention to them on this as well:

To conduct the new study, he analyzed coal fly ash samples from the U.S.’s three major coal basins, the Appalachian, Illinois and Powder River, in laboratory settings simulating the high-pH conditions found when ash mixes with freshwater in the environment.

The average hexavalent chromium concentrations in samples from each region exceeded the EPA Maximum Contaminant Level for total chromium. Some samples contained levels as high as 415 micrograms per liter. That’s four times the EPA limit and about 6,000 times higher than the 0.07 micrograms per liter health advisory level set by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Vengosh is a widely cited expert on environmental geochemistry and isotope hydrology. He and his team have published 15 peer-reviewed scientific studies on coal ash’s environmental impacts and he has also testified twice before Congress on the topic. His lab at Duke University has developed a field-tested suite of forensic isotopic tracers that can identify and measure the presence of coal ash contaminants in water and track them back to their source.

“These findings add to more than a decade’s worth of hard scientific evidence, by my lab and many others, documenting coal ash’s harmful environmental and human health impacts,” Vengosh said.

“The amendments proposed by the EPA would allow the ‘beneficial’ placement of unlimited quantities of coal ash in the environment, potentially near drinking water wells, rivers and lakes, without any restrictions or safeguards,” he said. “That could create countless new sources of leached contamination that will infiltrate into the subsurface and contaminate soil and water resources across the nation.”

Duke Energy and others are claiming this new EPA guidance will have little or no effect in North Carolina, which has developed its own relatively strict rules. But Duke Energy is also fighting DEQ over the cap-in-place or lined pits issue, and when you get into a civil court, all bets are off. We have to assume this may eventually affect NC, so send some good thoughts Avner's way today as he tries to put the "science" back into "environmental science."