Energy prices could spike with heavier EPA regulation of coal
COLUMBIA - No matter the outcome of an EPA ruling in December, energy prices are expected to increase for consumers across the country.
"The consumer will be affected because any measures taken to decommission a coal ash pond or change the way the coal ash is handled, we'll see an increased cost to the power company and those costs are inevitably always passed down to rate payer," said Director of power systems and engineering for City Power Development Group Cameron Etheridge.
Some Columbia residents said they are willing to pay a little more if it means they are helping the environment.
"Naturally, no one wants to pay higher prices for anything," said Columbia resident Scott Cristal. "But I think there will be a balance here because when things help the environment that usually means there will be lower prices on things related to it in the future."
"I am willing to pay higher energy fees if it does mean greater regulation for environmental concerns," said Columbia resident Valerie Wedel.
But there are some Columbia residents who aren't as accepting.
"A price increase is never good because there are other ways to fuel and get energy for a city besides coal," said Columbia resident Brad Hellman. "I'm against it."
The concern is that some coal ash ponds could be highly hazardous. The ponds could cause major damage if the materials in the coal ash somehow got into local water supply. So some coal power plants will have to make adjustments to the way they do things.
If the EPA makes a ruling for stricter regulation of the coal power plants, the plants will have to comply if they don't already. It would mean more work for them and more money from the consumer.
There are 14 power stations in Missouri with coal ash ponds. The stations were given ratings from less than low hazard potential to high hazard potential.
The map below shows the location of coal ash ponds in Missouri. The color of the pins indicate the conditions for the coal ash ponds in the state of Missouri as evaluated by the Untied States Environmental Protection Agency in August 2013.
The coal ash pond in Columbia off of Business Loop 70 was rated as a high hazard potential meaning failure or mis-operation of the plant could result in loss of human life.
After coal is used at the coal fired power plant in Columbia, it is hauled to a coal ash pond connected to the power plant, also referred to as More's Lake.
Utility Services Specialist Connie Kacprowicz said the coal ash pond in Columbia is currently being tested to determine if it is hazardous or not by an independent firm. The EPA's test was only to determine if it was a hazard potential.
"The EPA was concerned when they were inspecting it about it possibly overflowing," said Kacprowicz. "They were also concerned with the structural integrity of it."
Kacprowicz said the city should know the results of the tests being done at the coal ash pond in in November or December but until then they are being proactive to comply with new regulations.
"We always have to look at what might be coming down. A lot of times new regulations take several years to do the work and comply with the new regulations," said Kacprowicz.
The EPA's ruling will determine if coal ash is under federal jurisdiction or state jurisdiction as a hazardous material.
Etheridge said in Missouri, if the coal ash is classified under federal jurisdiction, then the coal ash ponds that are deemed to be unsafe will have to be cleaned up. But the case would be different if it fell under state jurisdiction, which is what local energy experts anticipate happening.
"Under state jurisdiction, Missouri would have to come up with a plan under the department of natural resources to determine which coal ash ponds are dangerous, which ones aren't and how to deal with them," said Etheridge.
If the EPA does rule to make coal ash ponds a state issue, the DNR will have to work with companies to decommission the ponds.
Owner of City Power in Columbia Chris Ihler said his company could be helping to decommission coal ash ponds in Missouri after the ruling in December.
"We've been working very closely with the department of natural resources and municipalities around the state to offer solutions for their coal ash ponds after the EPA ruling gets decided in December," said Ihler.
Ihler said over the next decade we will see a lot of coal ash ponds decommissioned but it won't happen right away.
"Not everyone is ready to decommission. Decommissioning will take a year to two years just to plan," said Ihler.
Ihler said it's likely that in the next ten years most coal power plants will either downsize their coal ash ponds or decommission them all together.
"Once a plant decides to decommission, we come in and do the work," said Ihler. "We offer solutions to the new re-purposed land after it's decommissioned."
One of the ways coal ash can affect water supply is if the coal ash site was improperly made. This is a problem for some of the coal ash ponds in Missouri that were made 100 years ago when there wasn't strict regulation. Because of this, builders didn't put a liner down in the pond before filling it with the coal ash. If there isn't a liner in the pond, hazardous material in the coal could leach, or spread through rainwater, to other water sources.
There are a few options of what could happen to already existing coal ash ponds in the United States if they are found to be hazardous according to the EPA.
1. The coal ash ponds could be capped in place. Capping is a method used to cover the existing coal ash pond with a big tarp and then planting dirt and grass on top of it. This can only happen though if a proper liner was used when the pond was built. If a pond is capped, it will then be classified as a brown field. A brown field is an area of land that can no longer be built on because of what use to be there, in this case the coal ash.
2. If a coal ash pond is classified as a hazard, workers at that plant may have to transport their coal ash to another, safer coal ash pond. However, this brings up other issues because transporting the coal ash is a risky job. If the coal ash got loose, it could hurt the environment.
3. The coal ash could be mixed with water, a process that creates a toxic slurry, and taken to a landfill.
4. If the coal ash is less hazardous, it can be recycled and used by concrete companies around the state. In fact, concrete with coal ash in it has special properties that make it last longer.