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New fly ash regulations for Michigan power plants?

Coal burning power plants are often scrutinized for what they emit from smokestacks. But now a by-product of burning coal for electricity is getting a closer look. Steve Carmody reports:

For the past few days… Dennis Brabant and his crew have been vacuuming up tons of fly ash trapped in the silo at the Lansing Board of Water and Light ‘s Eckert Power Plant.

“That’s what we’re dealing with right there… it’s part of electricity.”

Brabant lets the fine power pour through his fingers. It spreads like water on the silo floor… and coats everything.

Fly ash contains trace amounts of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic chemicals.

Deborah Allen is the plant manager. She says BWL does everything it can to contain the fly ash in its silo… and keep it from escaping…and blanketing the surrounding neighborhoods in a fine dust.

“We had a gate that didn’t close last year….and it ended up putting about two to three inches of ash all over the equipment…the vehicles…and over into the park.”

But fly ash is not just by-product of burning coal… it’s also a commodity.

As recently as 2006…Lansing Board of Water and Light earned a million dollars from selling ash collected from its coal burning power plants to companies that make concrete and asphalt. What wasn’t sold was landfilled.

But as the recession slowed the economy… it also slowed demand for fly ash.

Meanwhile… there could be changes coming that could affect how BWL and other Michigan utilities dispose of their fly ash.

The EPA is thinking about changing the rules. Under one proposal… coal ash would be regulated as a ‘special waste,’ something akin to hazardous waste. The other proposal would classify coal ash as ‘non-hazardous waste.’

The public comment period on the proposed new regulation ends next week.

A Lansing Board of Water and Light official says BWL will “do whatever is necessary to comply with any existing or future regulation from the EPA.”  That same official declined to speculate on what those changes may eventually be.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.