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Below is an article supporting the Hunts' position:
 

Environmental group plans to sue over coal ash at San Juan mine

EPA expected to issue new rules on coal ash in early 2010

By Marjorie Childress 12/29/09 12:01 AM

 
 

An aerial view of the San Juan coal mine. Photo by Doc Searls.

Groundwater near the San Juan coal mine in northwestern New Mexico is polluted. That’s something that both the Sierra Club and New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division Director Bill Brancard agree on. What’s in dispute is how the water came to be contaminated.

The Sierra Club alleges that the San Juan Coal Company has improperly dumped more than 40 million tons of  coal ash and sludge into unlined pits, resulting in the contamination of waterways and wells near the mine.

The group says that the waste, and the contaminated water, pose a danger to livestock, wildlife and families in the area, and in early December, the Sierra Club announced that it intends to sue the owners of the San Juan Coal Company.

The company denies responsibility for the contamination.

“San Juan Coal Company is confident that allegations of water contamination as a result of coal combustion by-product (CCB ) placement at the San Juan Mine are incorrect and are not supported by water monitoring data,” Charles Roybal, senior counsel for the coal company’s parent company, BHP Billiton, told The Independent in an email.

When coal is burned in power plants, solid waste by-products are generated in the form of ash and sludge. Such waste contains toxic metals like mercury, arsenic, boron, lead and selenium, but its disposal is unregulated by the federal government.

The potential danger of coal ash disposal came to national attention in December 2008, when a billion gallons of coal ash sludge flooded rural Tennessee after the dam of a retention pond broke at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant. Just after the spill, attention focused on storage of wet coal sludge near rivers, and recommendations that risk be minimized by “putting dry ash into landfills with caps, linings and collection systems for contaminated water,” as the New York Times noted.

The disposal of combustion waste is currently unregulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but that may soon change. The EPA has been working to develop a regulatory framework for coal ash disposal since the Tennessee spill, and is expected to issue new disposal rules in early 2010.

At issue: Unlined pits

San Juan Coal Company disposes of the waste from the San Juan Generating Plant in unlined pits at the San Juan coal mine, which is allowed under current state regulations. There are three wells in place to monitor the groundwater in the area.

According to the Sierra Club’s notice of intent to sue, coal waste has been used to fill pits upgrade of “well L” and adjacent to “well D.” Both wells were placed by the coal company to monitor the water going into the Shumway and Westwater arroyos, which exit the mine boundaries and travel downstream.

A representative of BHP Billiton said the monitoring program has been in place for over 30 years, and that data from the wells is given to the state’s Mining and Mineral Division and subsequently made available to the public on a quarterly basis.

According to the data supplied in the Sierra Club’s notice of intent to sue, there are excessive levels of boron and selenium in water from Well D, and selenium, chloride and sulfate from Well L. The environmental group says it will present additional data in its suit concerning other pollutants, like uranium, arsenic, and lead.

“The only possible cause of the increasing pollutant concentrations in ground water drawn from Well L is leaching of pollutants from CCW [coal combustion waste], followed by transport off the permit area either by ground water movement, diffusion, or both,” the group states on page 15 of the notice.

Brancard agrees with the group’s analysis of the water data itself, but says the cause of the pollution isn’t necessarily the disposal of the coal ash in the unlined pits at the San Juan mine.

“The data they have is our data,” he said, “and there are some levels [of pollutants] that go beyond state standards. But it’s unclear what the source of the pollution is.”

The culprit could be a number of things, Brancard told the Independent.

The wells are located at the intersection of both the San Juan power plant and the mine, Brancard explained. His agency doesn’t have evidence that the coal waste deposited at the mine is getting wet, which would be an indicator that pollutants are leaching into the water, he said.

“We have instruments in the actual ash to see if it’s getting wet, which would cause leaching of metals and contaminants,” he explained. “What we’ve seen is that over time the ash has basically remained dry. We don’t have evidence that metals have leached to groundwater.”

However, Brancard said that his agency does take seriously the water contamination that the data shows. In order to get a better understanding of what is happening, the company was ordered in November to put in 10 additional monitoring wells, he continued.

But Jeff Stant, the director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a consultant with the Sierra Club, said that both geography in the area and the preponderance of one metal in particular—boron–makes it clear where the contamination comes from.

The geography places the monitoring wells lower than the waste pits at the San Juan mine with coal ash and “scrubber sludge,” he said. Of three monitoring wells, one is close to the power plant and coal ash pits, while the other two are six to eight miles from the power plant. The power plant is in a location that wouldn’t be able to intercept the flow of water in a way that would lead to the kind of contamination that exists at those two wells, he said.

“[Due to this geography] the idea that the power plant causes the leaching of the metals into the water is crazy,” he said.

That assessment, in conjunction with high levels of metals like boron, leads Stant to believe that the contamination is due to coal waste disposal back at the mine, not the power plant itself.

“Boron is a very good signifier of coal combustion waste leaching,” he said. “If you look at ash sites throughout the country where there is water contamination, you’ll see high levels of boron.”

New Mexico groundwater quality standards call for no more than 0.75 milligrams of boron per liter of water. The data shows boron well over that standard consistently present in the water going back to 1979, typically ranging from 1.3 to 2 milligrams per liter.

“We feel strongly there is no other way to explain the contamination,” Stant continued.

  Here is the Sierra Club's notice of intent to sue
  Source:  http://newmexicoindependent.com/43620/environmental-group-plans-to-sue-over-coal-ash-at-san-juan-mine
  
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