By Ben Raines
February 04, 2010, 7:30AMMOBILE, Ala. -- Arsenic-laced wastewater pumped out of a Perry County landfill is headed to Mobile for treatment and disposal by the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, according to system officials.
The Perry County landfill -- Alabama's largest -- was selected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receive millions of tons of coal ash that spilled into fields, homes and rivers after a Tennessee Valley Authority accident near Kingston, Tenn., last year. More than 100 rail cars deliver the waste each day under a $95 million contract with landfill operators.
Excess liquids contained in the coal ash collect in the bottom of the landfill and must be sucked out and treated.
EPA has said it is considering a hazardous waste designation for coal ash. In December, the agency delayed a final decision, pending further study. The Perry County landfill is not designed for hazardous waste disposal.
The ash and associated liquids contain mercury, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals. The substances are linked to both environmental and human health hazards.
The landfill liquid -- known as leachate -- was being treated by the city of Marion wastewater treatment plant and discharged into a small creek until early December, when EPA and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management began investigating. The agencies acted, at least in part, based on water testing data collected by John Wathen with the Friends of Hurricane Creek environmental group and a lawsuit filed by Florida-based environmental lawyer David Ludder.
EPA officials said the agency "suggested to the landfill operator that they send the leachate elsewhere," after becoming aware of a history of violations at the Marion facility. But, they said, ultimate authority for what happens with the leachate resides with state officials.
ADEM officials said the landfill did not have permits for disposing large amounts of waste liquids.
"They were dumping 20 to 24 trucks a day of the leachate from the landfill. The smell was extremely overwhelming" even after the leachate was treated, Wathen said.
Testing showed elevated levels of arsenic and ammonia in the creek handling the Marion treatment plant outflow, Wathen said.
Officials with the landfill told the Birmingham News that they quit shipping the leachate to Marion in early December. EPA officials were quoted as saying the leachate was being treated in Demopolis. Now, those 20 to 24 trucks a day of waste -- a tanker truck typically carries 5,000 to 9,000 gallons -- appear to be headed for Mobile, where a company called Liquid Environmental Solutions will "pretreat" the material before dumping it into the MAWSS sewer system.
Liquid Environmental Solutions has an existing permit to dispose of industrial waste through MAWSS.
"They are limited in their contract to send us 100,000 gallons a day. Typically they send anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 a day," said Barbara Shaw, a spokeswoman with MAWSS. "I don't know that they have taken anything yet (from the Perry County landfill). They have just contracted to take it."
Liquid Environmental Solutions did not return calls seeking comment.
Shaw said MAWSS' agreement with Liquid Environmental Solutions sets limits on heavy metals and other compounds that can be contained in the waste dumped into the MAWSS system. And there are limits on the amounts of those compounds that MAWSS can dump into Mobile Bay.
"They need to pretreat their waste water before it comes to our plant so they are not sending us something that could affect our process," Shaw said. "We can go over there any time day or night and collect samples, just to check."