Concrete reasons not to fear coal ash landfills

Concrete reasons not to fear coal ash landfills

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A few years back, I was giving a tour of one of Ameren’s energy centers. A visitor was interested in seeing the facility’s coal ash landfill, where we store the leftover ash we aren’t able to recycle into roofing shingles or concrete.

“Where’s the landfill,” the visitor asked?

“You’re standing on it,” I replied.

That’s because we turn the ash into concrete. That’s what the landfill is — it’s akin to a paved road. And it’s commonly acknowledged by experts, including the EPA, that a dry landfill with this hard substance is the best way to handle the material.

The energy business is complex, and some people could be scared when they hear dire predictions from advocacy groups who do not fully understand this complexity.

Such was the case in an opinion article on coal ash Jan. 8 in the Post-Dispatch, “Five years after TVA, Missouri faces own impending coal ash disaster.” There were so many unsubstantiated claims and simply inaccurate statements made in the article that I’m not sure where to begin.

Let’s start with the headline and first paragraph. The writer cites the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston power plant incident from five years ago as evidence that Missouri faces its own “impending coal ash disaster.”

Such a conclusion is a sure way to scare some people. It’s less convenient to point out that:

• Ameren doesn’t have a single structure designed or built like the one that failed at Kingston, which was a structural failure.

• Ameren regularly inspects our ash ponds to ensure that structural integrity is maintained, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on multiple occasions over the last two years has visited Ameren’s facilities and observed our operations.

• Coal ash is currently classified as nonhazardous by the EPA, and it appears they are going to keep it that way.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about coal ash residuals that come about as we produce energy to power the quality of life for our customers. Let me try to explain.

Coal ash is similar to other natural materials. According to the EPA: “Coal ash is primarily composed of basic minerals like calcium, silica, iron, and aluminum, which are valuable minerals that can be put to beneficial use in many ways that are safe and protective.” Beneficial uses include wallboard, concrete, roofing materials and bricks.

Ash ponds have been in use by electric generating utilities for decades, and Ameren has safely operated our ponds for decades. Some energy centers also have on-site landfills, which are lined and permitted differently. These landfills are taking the place of ponds as an industry-wide best-practice. To manage ash in the future, Ameren is in the process of converting to modern dry landfills in lined enclosures. Ameren has such a landfill for ash storage at our Sioux Energy Center in St. Charles. We are seeking authorization from the Missouri DNR to construct a similar landfill at Labadie Energy Center, and we are evaluating storage needs at other energy centers.

As a University of Missouri-Rolla engineer working for Union Electric/Ameren Missouri for 39 years, dedicating my career to providing safe and affordable energy to the St. Louis region, I want to assure readers that:

• Ameren’s ash ponds are safe, operating in accordance with state and federal environmental regulations.

• Our modern dry landfills in lined enclosures are safe, too, and have been designed to meet the most stringent of engineering requirements.

• Building coal ash landfills in river floodplains has been a standard practice at hundreds of facilities across the U.S. over the past 50 years and can be done in compliance with federal and state standards without any detrimental health or environmental impacts.

Dry coal ash landfills are not a dire threat to the environment nor will they “wash away” in a storm. These types of landfills are in fact the solution.

Post-Dispatch readers can rest assured that local drinking water is safe. In fact, Ameren will be publishing a detailed report compiled by independent experts that demonstrates the lack of adverse health impacts related to our current ash management practices. And as we have stated publicly on many occasions, we are committed to fully complying with all Missouri DNR guidelines, including groundwater monitoring.

Ameren powers the quality of life for our millions of customers in an environmentally responsible way while keeping rates among the lowest in the United States.

And if any readers are concerned about coal ash, I’d encourage them to take a look at their sidewalk. There’s a good chance the concrete it is made of was made from coal ash.

Charles Naslund is executive vice president of Ameren Missouri Generation.

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