What will Obama OSM(RE) nominee do about coal ash?

August 5, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


UPDATED, 10 A.M. THURSDAY — The Senate hearing is being streamed live on the Web right now.

Earlier, I posted some questions that I would ask OSM(RE) nominee Joseph G. Pizarchik if I got the chance to take part in tomorrow’s U.S. Senate committee confirmation hearing.

pizarchik.JPGBut I also want to make sure Coal Tattoo readers are aware of Pizarchik’s involvement in another major issue facing the coalfields: How to regulate the toxic ash generated by the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

This issue, of course, burst onto the list of top environmental priorities back in December, when a coal-ash impoundment at a TVA plant in east Tennessee collapsed (photo, above).  But folks who followed it more closely have known for years that coal ash was smack in the middle of a huge loophole and faced little regulation by the federal government.

One of the big issues about coal ash has been whether companies should be allowed to dispose of it by dumping it into old played-out mine workings and on strip mine sites. This is something that the National Academy of Sciences cautioned could be very dangerous and shouldn’t be done without a very strict and detailed set of regulations.

In Pennsylvania, while serving as that state’s reclamation chief, Pizarchik has been in the middle of this issue — and environmental groups who have been following his decisions are now strongly opposing his confirmation to the OSMRE post, in large part because of his handling of coal-ash issues.

Even before Pizarchik was formally nominated by President Obama, Jeffrey Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project warned fellow activists in an e-mail message:

…Pizarchik has steered the PADEP in a far from neutral direction on contentuous battles, coming down unapologetically on industry’s side … his deep involvement in promoting risky minefill practices and his unwillingness to fairly examine data that documents increased pollution at mine ash sites make him an unwise choice for this federal agency.

Two years ago, Stant and the Clean Air Task Force published a report called, Impacts on Water Quality from Placement of Coal Combustion Waste in Pennsylvania Coal Mines, detailing how, at 10 of 15 mine sites examined by the state, coal ash disposal had polluted groundwater and streams with levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and selenium and other pollutants above safe standards.

Pizarchik never bought these conclusions, and has been fighting with environmentalists ever since over proposed new regulations on coal-ash disposal at mine sites in Pennsylvania. Pizarchik makes it no secret that he’s a big advocate of the controversial practice of dumping power plant ash on mine sites as part of a reclamation plan that will clean up acid mine drainage:

Through the use of coal ash these old mines can be restored to productive land and reduce the amount of pollution coming from the old mines. Many of the sites reclaimed with coal ash would not likely be otherwise reclaimed.

Earlier this year, attorney Lisa Evans of Earthjustice wrote to Pizarchik’s boss, Pennsylvania acting DEP Secretary John Hanger, to complain about the proposed regulations. Among other things, Evans outlined in her April 7 letter concerns that Pennsylvania’s program to allow coal ash as minefill was not meeting the requirements of either the Surface Mining Act or the Clean Water Act:

The magnitude of CCW disposal operations and the attendant risks to human
health and the environment demand that DEP place the regulatory safeguards that are required under RCRA, SMCRA, and the CWA. DEP cannot adequately address ongoing water contamination by issuing unenforceable guidance or regulations that ignore these risks. Compliance with governing federal law and implementing regulations is required.

Then, on April 17,  Stant wrote another letter to Hanger, again raising more questions about the Pennsylvania coal-ash regulations:

As they are currently proposed these rules allow unlimited volumes of coal ash leaching metals at many times over safe standards in insufficient tests to be dumped into groundwater that flows directly from coal mines into nearby human receptors such as private or public drinking water wells. The rules do not ensure that this groundwater will even be monitored much less that unsafe concentrations of metals will result in prompt responses by operators or the department to address contamination.
In addition to these basic deficiencies, there are no provisions in the proposed
rules requiring financial assurance to be set aside by site operators to address contamination with enhanced monitoring and abatement measures. And solicitation of input from those living near ash beneficial use sites is not improved in the proposed rules despite the considerable, legitimate controversy that large scale beneficial uses without safeguards have created. Thus as currently written, we strongly believe that the proposed rules in Chapter 290 governing the beneficial use of coal ash are unacceptable not only for the Department and citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but also as an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

The Obama administration has promised to take tough action to write new regulations governing coal ash handling and disposal, in response to the TVA mess.  How do the practices that Joe Pizarchik has pushed in Pennsylvania mesh with Obama’s plans? Maybe someone on that Senate committee will ask …

9 Responses to “What will Obama OSM(RE) nominee do about coal ash?”

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  2. Penelope A. Boyd says:

    Let me see if I understand this — there is a report from CATF regarding coal ash and a response from PADEP. And, based on letters an advocacy group wrote to the Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Joe Pizarchik is responsible for the results of an attempt to deal with the real problem of abandoned mines. Does this really make sense? Joe would give you the opportunity to express your concerns and offer positive solutions to the problems. You don’t seem to be suggesting them now, just trying to derail the nomination because there is someone you like better?

  3. Red Desert says:

    Is it only ash from these fluid-bed combustion plants or other types of ash, too? The report in the link says these FBC plants (re)burn the ash from regular coal plants. Before firing, limestone is added to the ash to reduce air pollution (probably NO2 and SO2). That makes the 2nd generation of ash–the ash left over from the FBC firing–alkaline.

    Pizarchik’s argument is that alkaline material can be used as fill to reduce the acid drainage in played out mines. Of course, the twice fired ash has higher concentrations of heavy metals, too.

    PS–great questions for Pizarchik in your previous post

  4. Sue Sturgis says:

    A quick note in reference to Red Desert’s comment: The FBC plants aren’t re-burning ash from regular coal plants — they’re burning the waste coal that was originally rejected by the coal processors as too impure to burn. This waste goes by various names — culm in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, and boney or gob in the bituminous coal areas. Enormous piles of it mar the landscape in the coalfields, and the regulators have seized on burning it as the best way to make the piles disappear. However, that only further concentrates the toxins. These plants — which also typically burn other waste fuels such as waste oil — have also been associated with high emissions of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. At my personal blog Hometown Hazards at http://www.hometownhazards.com I have been reporting on a government-confirmed blood cancer cluster in the area of the U.S. with the greatest concentration of these FBC plants — the anthracite coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania, where I’m from and where one of my grandfathers worked as a miner and the other as a colliery worker. More federally funded research on that cancer cluster is currently underway.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks, Sue. I’m a big fan of your blog, and I appreciate you adding your expertise to Coal Tattoo … Ken.

  6. Red Desert says:


    The detailed information is much appreciated. The more I learn about coal, the more problematic it seems to be as an energy source. Mining, burning, post combustion. Lots and lots of problems.

  7. Red Desert says:


    The detailed information is much appreciated. The more I learn about coal, the more problematic it seems to be. Mining, burning, post combustion waste. Lots and lots of problems.

    In one of Ken’ s links to info from groups oppossed to the nomination, they say alkaline ash backfill hasn’t sucessfully reduced any mine acid drainage.

  8. Giptopyit says:

    Thank you representing details. It helped me in my assignment

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