FAIRBANKS — The Environmental Protection Agency was in Fairbanks last month in response to a citizen petition filed over concerns around the haphazard handling and storage of coal ash. The results from a preliminary site assessment of the Aurora Power Plant in September 2011 have launched a full investigation to determine if the property should be listed on the National Priorities List for superfund sites.
Coal ash waste from Alaska’s power plants has been disposed of with virtually no restrictions for decades. The Aurora power plant is situated in a residential neighborhood on the banks of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. Residents have reported being adversely affected by the transport of coal ash from this facility. The frequent occurrence of fugitive dust has left coal ash residue on public roads, sidewalks and many homes, and homeowners are concerned about the impacts this may have on their health and their property values.
Neither the Aurora nor the University of Alaska Fairbanks coal-fired power plants have a designated landfill for their coal ash. Local contractors are hired to dispose of coal ash waste; however, much of it is stockpiled on numerous properties throughout the Fairbanks North Star Borough, where it sits uncovered, posing many threats to the environment and to the public.
Elsewhere in the United States, investigations of unlined coal ash landfills such as these have revealed widespread groundwater contamination from toxic chemicals in coal ash. Alaskans have been repeatedly assured by industry and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation that coal ash is a nontoxic substance that is safe to use throughout the community and at home, even in garden soil. However, most of these claims stem from an outdated testing method, the Toxicity Characteristics Leaching Procedure, which measures the ability of coal ash to leach in water. It’s an unreliable method and not applicable to disposal practices in Alaska, where nearly all coal ash is disposed of in dry sites or reused. The state of Alaska currently regulates coal ash as a solid waste — the same as household garbage.
At the request of local residents, a sampling project was conducted in June 2010 by the Alaska Community Action on Toxics. It reported, in “Coal Ash in Alaska: Our Health, Our Right to Know,” that samples of coal ash from local power plants, waste disposal sites and reuse sites were found to contain a range of toxic heavy metals. In almost every case, the level of toxic chemicals were found to be significantly higher than background soils in Fairbanks. Samples from the UAF coal-fired power plant showed arsenic concentrations more than 100 times higher than the standard for residential soils, and mercury was found at 70 times higher than background soils, which is certainly high enough to be a concern if inhaled in the form of windblown dust.
ADEC however, performed a study around the same time that disputed the ACAT report, and Aurora Energy provided their own samples, revealing no detectable levels of toxins.
The discrepancies between the ACAT report, ADEC’s findings and the samples provided by Aurora Energy have only raised more questions and confirmed the need for more comprehensive, reliable and up-to-date information on the composition of Alaska’s coal ash. The EPA was here to do just that — more comprehensive testing to determine if local sources of coal ash are harmful to our health and our environment. Fairbanks residents have the right to know, period.
Lissa Hughes is legislative liaison and conservation solutions coordinator for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks.