Arrowhead on verge of taking ash

Published 10:54 pm Monday, June 15, 2009

One of the nation’s largest landfills exists not far from here in an isolated area of U.S. Highway 80 near the Dallas-Perry county line. It consists of about 976 acres. Now it takes commercial and household refuse.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority reach an agreement, the Arrowhead Landfill will take in tons and tons of ash resulting from a dike’s collapse near the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant in Roane County, Tenn., last December.

The accident resulted in 5.4 million cubic yards of ash released in the environment — a goodly portion of it in a branch of the Emory River and more than 300 acres of adjacent land. Although the ash contained heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury and others, the EPA said none of it was in significant numbers enough to threaten the health of people living nearby.

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Documents from the EPA show the federal agency, Tennessee and TVA conducted extensive samplings of air, water, sediment and ash material.

“Sampling results have revealed levels of arsenic in the ash material that exceed Region 4’s residential removal action level of 39mg/kg,” the document reads. “In addition, shortly after the release, arsenic was detected in surface water samples at concentrations in excess of the Tennessee Water Quality Criteria for Domestic Water Supply and in excess of the human health aquatic organism consumption criteria.”

Other heavy metals also surpassed nationally recommended safe levels for ambient water quality. The document also noted “The level of these metals detected in the most recent air and surface water sampling events do not indicate an immediate threat to human health or the environment from those metals. However, if the ash material is not properly managed and remediated, the direct impact of the ash material currently in the water on the riverine ecosystem, further suspension of the ash and its constituents within affected waters, and potential exposure from ash on the ground could present unacceptable impacts to human health and/or the environment.”

Earlier this month, TVA confirmed 1,000 tons of sludge from the accident were dried and loaded onto 14 railroad tank cars and shipped to a landfill in Taylor County, Ga. Another load of similar size was sent to the Arrowhead Landfill. Both sites were chosen to test ways of transporting and disposing the sludge.

Where the rest of the sludge from the Dec. 22 spill will wind up has yet to be determined. TVA has submitted an analysis of disposal options for EPA’s review.

Davina Marraccini, a public relations specialist with EPA’s Region 4 that oversees operations in Alabama, Georgia and other southeastern states, released a statement saying, “Prior to approving a disposal site for this portion of the material, EPA will ensure the facility is operating in compliance with solid waste regulations and that potential risks to the community, especially any vulnerable populations, are addressed.”

The statement also said TVA and EPA will speak with residents and local leaders to ensure they are aware of any plans.

At least one local leader in Perry County, Commissioner Albert Turner Jr., said the ash would be safer in the Arrowhead Landfill than in the holding ponds in Tennessee. The metals aren’t traceable and the landfill is constructed in such a way to prevent any sort of leaching.

Turner claimed talk of the heavy metals is “a scare tactic used by these environmentalists.”

Perry County also has filed a petition with the state to increase its ability to take on commercial garbage. Under the petition, the landfill will extend its service area to Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

If approved by Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the landfill will take in 15,000 tons a day — double what it takes in now. The petition by Perry County was filed with ADEM June 6 — a month after the final order between the EPA and TVA was signed.

The issue has raised some concerns by District 7 Congressman Artur Davis, D-Birmingham. Perry County is one of the Black Belt counties in his district. The county has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the state.

Davis has no real authority over the movements by the agencies and the county, other than to voice his opinion.

“While the transfer of millions of tons of coal ash may not violate Alabama’s environmental standards, it is well known that Alabama’s standards are weaker than the standards set by most of our neighbors,” Davis said Monday. “My consistent position has been that while local counties have leeway to decide whether they want to operate landfills, there are serious public policy issues at stake when potentially hazardous wastes are dumped into a community.”

Davis testified before the Alabama Environmental Management Commission in 2004, favoring the creation of a position of environmental justice ombudsman to scrutinize whether permitting decisions unfairly disadvantaged low income areas.

“To my knowledge, I was one of the few elected officials in Alabama who openly called for raising our incredibly lax standards for water pollution, an event that finally happened last year,” he said.

Three years later, in 2007, Davis was the only member of the Alabama delegation to co-sponsor the Clean Water Restoration Act to restore environmental protections for wetlands, rivers, lakes streams and other unprotected waters.

“Perry County officials have hard choices to make given the staggering unemployment and depressed tax base in the county, and it should be no surprise that they would embrace a lucrative new revenue source,” Davis said. “I also see no evidence that any existing federal regulations have been violated here. But regardless of the debate over this shipment of coal ash, the controversy is a symptom of a larger problem that keeps recurring. I have long said, as a congressman and now as a candidate for governor, that Alabama’s industrial profile can no longer depend on a race to the bottom. We cannot build a future for rural Alabama based on how little we demand of our corporate citizens, and how little we protect our people, not in a century where China, India and South America have us beat on each front.”