CHICAGO - A handful of Caledonia officials and residents joined hundreds of others in Chicago on Thursday to advocate for a stronger federal regulation of coal ash while opponents argued against "stigmatizing" it as a hazardous waste.
High levels of molybdenum, a naturally occurring metal and also a byproduct of coal combustion, in private wells near the We Energies Oak Creek power plant has left several nearby residents dependent on bottled water for more than a year.
"Protect us," a woman using a walker told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to a semi-standing ovation from the audience at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago.
The Chicago hearing was one of several nationwide on considering two ways to regulate the byproducts of coal combustion - as either hazardous or non-hazardous - to protect against contaminants possibly leaching into groundwater.
Village President Ron Coutts addressed EPA officials, saying the groundwater contamination in Caledonia is an "emergency" and a "nightmare" for 50 homes with families and children.
This is the first time the EPA is proposing regulating coal ash.
The first option, Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, is to regulate it as special waste for disposal in landfills or surface impoundments and would make the regulations required rather than only recommended, as under the second option RCRA
Categorizing coal ash as hazardous would be a mistake that compromises other environmental priorities such as greenhouse gas reduction and conserving resources, We Energies Principal Engineer Art Covi said at the hearing.
"The loss of well-accepted and approved beneficial uses for (coal combustion products) due to overregulation and the stigma of a hazardous waste designation from EPA ... would create huge demand for landfill permitting and development," Covi said.
We Energies generates about $3 million in revenue and avoids about $28 million in disposal costs every year through the reuse of coal, Covi said. Under Subtitle C, We Energies costs could rise to more than $300 million per year, he added.
Some coal industry proponents suggested stricter coal ash regulations could mean higher electricity costs as power companies are forced to meet higher requirements, not to mention potential job losses.
Lynda Lechner, 64, whose well in Caledonia is contaminated, said it was good to hear both sides of the issue Thursday.
"Once an industry like that starts talking about jobs in this kind of economy," she trailed off, it becomes a more complicated issue.
But for Coutts and Trustee Kathy Burton, the two Village Board members at the hearing, their concern was getting a permanent water source to residents with contaminated wells.
"I'm frustrated because I feel like we have no answers and the five-year timeline the (state Department of Natural Resources) has given us (to find the contaminant source) isn't acceptable to me," Burton said. "We have to look into it and see what we can do to provide them with municipal water."
In a first step toward getting municipal water in the area, the village Water Utility District Commission on Tuesday voted to have engineers come up with a plan.
Coutts said the Village Board will be meeting with the commission within weeks to discuss the municipal water project.
"Now (municipal water) is looking good," Barbara Hugier, 64, of Caledonia, said. "You can't be in a farm atmosphere and use bottled water to wash your vegetables."