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John Funk, The Plain Dealer

A major confrontation between environmentalists and electric utilities that burn a lot of coal is about to boil over.

The fight is about coal ash — from the gritty cinders spread on icy winter roads, to the smokestack scrubber sludge that goes into drywall, to the fly ash in concrete.

The industry argues that coal ash is inert, that 40 percent of it is recycled into such products, and that the measures environmentalists want will cost billions of dollars and drive up power costs.

Environmental groups counter that the presence of heavy metals in the combustion products makes all of it hazardous.

They point to groundwater contamination from leaky utility ash disposal sites — including some in Ohio — operated under decades of lax regulations.

The U.S. EPA  is proposing rules that could in fact declare the stuff hazardous, which would eliminate its use as a building material and tighten groundwater monitoring requirements.

The EPA will have seven public hearings over the next couple of months, though none in Ohio, where coal-burning power plants generate nearly 90 percent of the electricity.

Using public documents pulled from the records of states with heavy coal use, a coalition of three environmental groups Thursday released a massive national report  concluding that the patchwork of state regulations has been ineffective.

The study, “In Harm’s Way,” is the work of the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club . It argues that tough federal regulations must be adopted.

“Our examination shows that contamination of the environment and water supplies with toxic levels of arsenic, selenium, lead, cadmium, boron, molybdenum and other pollutants is pervasive at America’s coal combustion waste disposal sites because states are not preventing it,” the report concludes.

The report cites three sites in Ohio where America Electric Power’s Ohio companies dispose of coal ash.

The study claims groundwater contamination under the sites, and in one case in nearby wells.

The study also focuses on a FirstEnergy power plant in Pennsylvania, just across the Ohio state line, as responsible for polluting a stream and residential wells.

Neither Pat Hemlepp, a spokesman for AEP, nor Ellen Raines, spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, would comment about the specific allegations because they had not seen the study until The Plain Dealer provided it to them.

Hemlepp said AEP does in fact support federal regulations “to get rid of the patchwork quilt of [state] regulations we currently face.” AEP is headquartered in Columbus and operates in 11 states.

But the company opposes efforts to get the ash declared a hazardous waste because it then would have to be handled differently, adding billions of dollars in costs and increase electricity rates, the company says.

As for groundwater contamination, Hemlepp said, “AEP voluntarily uses the strictest standard in place in any of our states at all of our plants in all states. And AEP is voluntarily installing groundwater monitoring wells around ash ponds that do not already have wells installed.”

Raines said FirstEnergy hires outside contractors to test wells under its Pennsylvania site four times a year.

“The results are consistently below federal [water] limits,” she said.

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Story Compliments Of The Plain Dealer

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