On Tuesday, July 28, just after 8 a.m., an inspection port on a silo at the NRG-owned Indian River Generating Station (power plant) near Millsboro malfunctioned while employees were performing routine maintenance, allowing fly ash to escape while it was being loaded onto a truck for disposal.
“At 8:15 a.m., station personnel opened a small access port in an effort to clear a blockage in the silo. The blockage unexpectedly cleared, and ash emptied out of the port with such force that it prevented the employees from closing the access cover. The workers immediately exited the room, in accordance with NRG’s safety protocol and began efforts to dampen the ash,” explained NRG spokesperson Lori Neuman.
According to officials at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), which is investigating the accident, the ash, which fell onto concrete floor, also escaped into the air and was blown north over the Indian River Bay by southerly winds, “and likely away from any homes in the area,” before local fire companies responded to wet the ash to prevent further spread.
“NRG began wetting down the pile of fly-ash that escaped to prevent more emissions. Remedial spraying was to continue throughout the day against ‘fugitive dust,’ which is normal procedure for the Indian River power plant,” DNREC officials said. “The silo from which ash escaped still had material to be off-loaded, but DNREC’s Emergency Response Team reported that NRG has water-suppression capabilities for containing any fugitive emissions. Vacuum trucks are also at the Indian River facility to assist in the cleanup.”
DNREC officials also stated that they are working closely with the Division of Public Health to monitor neighboring communities downwind of the facility for residual ash, to ensure the health and safety of residents in the area – something Neuman said was at the top of NRG’s list, as well.
“Our first priority is ensuring the safety of the workers at our facility and of the environment,” said Neuman.
“To be conservative, we immediately notified the local authorities — including DNREC, the Coast Guard and the Dagsboro fire department. The Millsboro and Sussex County emergency response personnel were very helpful in working with us,” said Neuman.
One employee who breathed in the dust was taken to the hospital for evaluation, she noted.
Neuman added that there was more ash left in the silo, but it was no longer emptying.
“The material stopped flowing at about 10 a.m. We were able to secure the access port safely at 8:20 p.m. and expect the silo to be operational later today,” Neuman said on Wednesday. “As a precaution, Units 1, 2 and 3 were taken offline yesterday, but all four units are available to the grid as of this morning.”
DNREC officials said their investigation of the incident was ongoing and that they will require NRG to submit an incident report that will be reviewed to determine whether any enforcement action is warranted.
“The DNREC Environmental Crimes Unit is still investigating, but no actionable citation or enforcement has been made at this time,” said Michael Globetti of DNREC public affairs.
“As of 12 noon, DNREC estimates that clean-up is 60 percent complete and may continue into early tomorrow,” he said Wednesday.
Fly ash poses potential hazards
Although coal fly ash is not classified as a hazardous waste, new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has stated that new coal fly-ash regulations will be proposed by the end of this year. In 2002, the EPA drafted a decision to call fly ash a hazardous waste, but it was never formally proposed.
“It met with such political opposition at the time, it didn’t go forward,” explained John Austin, retired EPA scientist and a member of the executive board of local activist group Citizens for Clean Power.
“What was pending was to say that all coal fly ash not disposed of in regulatory industrial landfills would be considered a hazardous waste,” he explained further.
That means the disposal of the fly ash in a wet lagoon, much like how the ash was disposed of at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., would have been prohibited. In December of 2008, the Tennessee site experienced a spill that ultimately destroyed three homes, when approximately 3.1 million cubic feet of fly ash and water were released onto land adjacent to the plant and into two nearby rivers.
Because landfills like the ones currently being built at Indian River (Phase II) is a dry disposal landfill, the fly ash being disposed of there would still not have been classified as hazardous waste – rather, as a solid waste – had that EPA draft policy been adopted. The practice would have continued as long as the fly ash was disposed of in a lined, industrial landfill. The old Phase I landfill disposal system, though, with no liner, would have been banned.
Austin said the closest thing in Delaware to a wet disposal system is at Vista in Seaford, where the fly ash is wet-collected before being dried out and then put in the landfill.
He said it is interesting to see what is happening now in the country in regards to coal fly ash after the incident in Tennessee.
“The industry opposes regulation of the material as a hazardous waste, but since Tennessee, everything is back on the table. There is a strong possibility that what was being proposed in 2002 could come forth and be enacted this time, but it is a guessing game.”
Austin pointed out that the main health concern with fly ash, which has a consistency similar to talcum-powder, is its arsenic content – arsenic is a carcinogen. He said the chronic, long-term exposure from the emissions from the stacks for the people near Millsboro – not necessarily from one-time contamination from a release such as the one on Tuesday – is also a concern, though he added that it is “never good to be exposed.”
“The Resource Conservative Recovery Act, or RCRA” – pronounced “rick-rah,” and which gives the EPA the ability to regulate hazardous waste – “is all or none,” explained Austin. “Either it is hazardous or it is not.”
“You are splitting regulatory hairs,” he continued. “It is not considered a hazardous waste, nevertheless it contains hazardous materials.”