New legislation approved by the Michigan House of Representatives would repurpose coal ash produced by power plants as a base for roads across the state, as well as parking lots.
The three-bill package would reclassify coal ash and a few other byproducts that are presently classified as hazardous waste, which would essentially treat them as low-risk materials that are suitable for certain “beneficial use” projects.
As reported by Michigan Live:
State Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), who sponsored one of the bipartisan bills to amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, said the byproducts that could be re-used under the legislation, including coal ash, pose little threat to the public.
“We have the testing standards in place, and we’re doing the same thing as surrounding states,” said Schmidt. “We’re not going to be putting it into playground sand or anything like that. We’re making sure it’s used for roads or projects where it can be contained in a safe way.”
Reports said that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is supporting the package of bills, each of which have passed the GOP-controlled House in a series of 68-42 and 66-44 votes that mostly fell along party lines. A few Democrats co-sponsored the bills but at least two of them wound up voting against them when they came up on the floor.
Groups like the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Groundwater Association and the Michigan Manufacturers Association backed the bills during committee hearings last month, MLive reported.
‘Those roads will eventually crumble’
Environmental groups, however, have expressed concerns saying that the coal ash could potentially contaminate ground water. Also, they are worried that the potential impact of new federal regulations that are designed to reduce mercury levels in coal plant smokestack emissions.
James Clift, the Michigan Environmental Council policy director, says that much of the mercury will be captured in the coal ash, meaning that coal ash used beneath roads and parking lots could contain dangerously elevated mercury levels.
“Those roads and parking lots will eventually crumble,” Clift said in testimony in April. “Some will be rebuilt, others will be left for future generations to figure out how to repurpose. The placement of industrial byproducts at those sites will make their redevelopment more challenging and be a burden on local units of government.”
In addition, a group of environmental activists from separate organizations converged on the state capital in Lansing to provide lawmakers with copies of “Toxic Trash Exposed,” which is a 2013 report prepared by the Clean Water Fund documenting state coal ash pollution. The group, noting that the proposed bills exempt companies from legal liability on any byproducts that have been cleared for “beneficial use,” heavily criticized the House vote.
“It’s unconscionable that our legislature continues to protect the coal industry instead of the hardworking people of Michigan,” Margi Armstrong of Michigan Clean Water Action Lake St. Clair said in a statement. “We have very little knowledge about the potentially devastating impacts that these bills will have on our water, our health, and our communities.”
‘Full of chemicals’
As further reported by MLive:
The legislation would also allow byproducts like cement kiln dust, pulp and paper mill material, scrap wood, sand, asphalt shingles and sludge from the treatment of petroleum contaminated soil to be repurposed in various ways rather than end up in landfills.
The bills are similar to laws that have already been put in place by neighboring states, Schmidt said. He added that opposition from some environmental groups was itself a byproduct of general animosity towards coal-fired power plants.
“I think the main goal for many of those radical environmental groups is their war on coal,” he said. “What we’re dealing with is beneficial use of byproducts making sure that it’s used in a safe and beneficial way.”
According to the environmental legal group Earth Justice, coal ash “is full of chemicals that cause cancer, developmental disorders and reproductive problems. It poisons our water and kills fish and wildlife.”
The EPA says that some 70 percent of coal ash that is repurposed “was for concrete, blended cement and structural fills/embankments. The remaining usage was as road base, in snow and ice control, for mining applications and as an aggregate.”