Waste not

LG&E and elected officials tout use of coal byproducts in fertilizer, but questions about public health remain

As guests and media were bused into the heart of LG&E’s Mill Creek power plant facility, past billowing smokestacks and a mountain of coal combustion waste, it seemed an unlikely setting for an Earth Day celebration.

But that’s exactly what Monday was billed as, with the utility company and elected leaders praising the announcement of a new $13 million facility to be operated by Charah Inc., a company that specializes in reusing coal byproducts. The facility will convert onsite waste into a new pellet form of fertilizer to be sold around Kentucky.

LG&E and Charah officials, plus several elected officials — including Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, and state House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins — praised the new facility as a win-win-win: The fertilizer will use 300 tons of coal waste that otherwise would have gone into their landfill, the facility will create 20 full-time jobs, and farmers will be able to use the new synthetic gypsum fertilizer that Charah says is superior to the natural version currently used.

Adkins stressed that this innovation — along with recently announced retrofits at the plant to reduce pollution emissions, spurred by EPA mandates — will help protect coal jobs around the state. Comer noted that the dramatic 83 percent decrease in sulfur dioxide emissions over the past 30 years — also due to EPA mandates — has decreased the amount of needed sulfur in Kentucky’s soil, which the new product will help address.

Sen. Paul — who like the other conservatives has railed against the EPA’s so-called “War on Coal” — stressed that all of the officials present are environmentalists, adding that he composts at home.

At no time did any of the Earth Day revelers mention climate change, which an overwhelming majority of independent scientists say is exacerbated by the burning of coal.

But is this new facility and product a true win for the environment?

Charah officials claim the fertilizer is perfectly safe for crops and the water supply, saying the EPA has encouraged the reuse of coal byproducts. However, environmental activists claim such reuse doesn’t come without significant risks.

Agriculture Commissioner Comer — who says the facility was aided by a $2.5 million loan from the state’s Agricultural Finance Corporation — tells LEO that while he’s unclear on the scientific details, the fertilizer will be converted from coal ash in the plant’s scrubbers, though toxins such as arsenic and mercury would not be in the final product. “It’s been approved by every regulatory agency that would need to approve that,” he adds.

Danny Gray, executive vice president of Charah, stresses to LEO that the fertilizer would not come from fly ash, but the sulfur that is caught by the plant’s scrubbers, which produce the synthetic gypsum. This product is different from fly ash, Gray says, as it doesn’t catch the arsenic and heavy metals that are captured by other methods in the smokestack.

During a tour of the new facility, Charah employee Jonathan Duke said there would be no additional cleaning of the gypsum to remove toxic material because “it’s already pure.”

However, Jeff Stant of the environmental group Citizens Coal Council says Charah officials are not being forthright about the composition and potential health hazards of their product.

“I’m not saying that it will cause a problem or it won’t,” Stant says, “but based on the EPA’s own leach test data on gypsum produced by power plant scrubbers, the material leaches levels of metals and amounts of selenium that are very toxic to people and aquatic life.”

While Stant concedes that the gypsum produced by the scrubbers contains less toxic material than fly ash, this doesn’t mean it is without the same risk, and its application should be heavily monitored and tested to ensure the trace amounts of toxins in gypsum don’t leach into the water supply and hurt crops.

“They’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes here and act like this is some kind of different material (than fly ash),” Stant says. “To act like this is some benign substance, just sulfur that we’re putting back on the ground, is to be very disingenuous to the public.”

Currently there are no EPA-mandated regulations on coal ash or combustion byproducts, though the agency announced in 2010 that it is considering labeling it a hazardous waste. Groups like the American Coal Ash Association — for whom Charah’s CEO is a board member — claim it would hurt the sales of their reused material, while a host of environmental groups have sued the EPA, trying to force the administration’s hand in cracking down on the material they view as a public health hazard.

Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council notes that synthetic gypsum does have agricultural benefits and the EPA has suggested a certain amount of metals is not a significant public health concern. But he adds that testing of the material is insufficient to truly determine its effects as a fertilizer.

“The test they use is only designed for situations where you’re going to dispose of these wastes in a municipal landfill,” FitzGerald says. “And the field conditions for land application of scrubber sludge is a very different situation. And we need to know over the course of time what’s going to leach and the potential uptake of any metals in the crops.”

FitzGerald adds that it is unknown whether certain “stabilizing materials” are added to Charah’s product — like fly ash — that could increase its potential hazards.

“That’s a question that LG&E needs to answer and the state should be asking: What is the chemical composition of this material? Is it simply this (sulfur scrubbing) byproduct, or are you mixing it with fly ash, because that would render it unsuitable for agricultural land applications?”

In the facility tour, plant manager Carl Chase said 2 percent of the final product is a “binder,” which he declined to identify. Though he said it wasn’t toxic, LG&E has long insisted fly ash is harmless.

“I’m all for avoiding dumping coal ash irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean you turn around and do something else irresponsible with it,” Stant says. “I hope (Rand Paul) does compost, but I hope he’s not taking coal ash from a power plant and mixing it with his compost and then trying to sell that to his neighbors.”