PORTLAND - James and Diane Hofner of Portland are asking residents from other Chautauqua County towns that use coal-bottom ash on roads to join them in their quest to have the state Department of Environmental Conservation rescind allowing the use of recycled bottom ash as a traction agent.
Mrs. Hofner said the couple moved to Portland to retire, where they planned to enjoy the nature of the property they have owned for 25 years. Instead of doing just that, however, they are working to make sure a coal-bottom ash mixture used on roads instead of sand and salt, will not prevent their grandchildren from enjoying that environment too.
''We love Chautauqua County; the Chautauqua Institution and rural (nature),'' said Mrs. Hofner about why she wanted to retire to the couple's Portland home.
When the mix was put on roads in heavy amounts, however, she said, black plumes of smoke could be seen.
''We could not walk on our country road,'' said Mrs. Hofner. A stockpile of the ash near a park, also concerns Mrs. Hofner.
''We're concerned about our health, but, more importantly, the health of our children and grandchildren,'' she said, adding she has noticed higher rates of some illness in the area and wants to know if there is a connection between the ash mix and the illnesses seen.
''Innocent people do not know what they're being exposed to.''
The Hofners co-founded Concerned Residents of Portland, asking the town to voluntarily stop using the mixture on roads.
Charles E. Kelley Jr., Portland highway superintendent, said the Hofner's concerns are ''going overboard.'' Although he acknowledged the ash is dirty and dusty, he said information he receives from the DEC and National Grid, report it is safe to use.
''Yes, it's dusty,'' he said, adding, however, he has been told the ash mixture is tested for hazards.
''I don't think they'd let us use (if it were unsafe),'' he said.
Kelley said the ash mixture has been used for more than 45 years at about a $40,000 per year savings, since the town would otherwise have to purchase more sand or salt for roads. Instead, he said, the town gets the bottom ash free. Kelley said NRG brings the ash to the landfill, where it is used to cover the landfill. Fly ash is left at that site and bottom ash is picked up by the town and used on roads.
Kelley said he has also noticed other towns' road crews need to be out more often to put sand/salt on roads. Because of the ash mixture, he said, that is not necessary as often in Portland, where, he said it costs about $300 between fuel and personnel costs each time a town road truck goes out.
''It is dirty, so is salt and sand,'' he said about the ash, which, he said, melts ice on roads quickly.
Mrs. Hofner is still concerned, and, she has learned other towns also apply the mixture to roads. That knowledge led her to expand the group she helped form in 2007 from Concerned Residents of Portland to CROP Plus: Concerned Residents of Portland, plus people like us, Chautauqua United. She is asking residents of other towns where ash is used to come together to voice concerns about its use.
Arkwright Highway Superintendent Stephen Mead is awaiting information from the DEC about health and environmental effects of using coal bottom ash on roads and did not wish to comment until he obtains the information. He said the town has been using the ash on its roads for about 20 years.
ACCEPTED BY STATE
Donald Steger, Pomfret town supervisor, said that town has used a sand, salt and ash combination to assist with traction and melting snow on roads for years. He said the mixture has been in the town's arsenal because it saves the municipality $20,000 to $30,000 a year and is effective. Steger said as long as the state says the mixture is acceptable to use on roads, it will be used by the town. If the state were to change its position, he said, so would the town. Steger said, however, there seems to be a concern with everything.
''There's no way you're going to get around it,'' he said, adding people complain about salt eating away their cars and hurting foliage.
Steger said he has heard of some farmers growing beets so their juice can be used on roads. When that was mentioned locally, he said, a resident voiced concern about the mess.
'NOT AT RISK'
The health and environmental concerns brought by Mrs. Hofner have been communicated to the DEC, as she is seeking to change the regulations allowing the use of recycled bottom ash as a traction agent on roads. She has met with DEC officials, along with putting them on formal written notice regarding the group's concerns.
''The use of coal combustion bottom ash from NRG-Dunkirk as a traction agent is not an environmental risk,'' reports DEC Spokeswoman Lori Severino, speaking on behalf of the DEC. She said at least 14 states, including New York, explicitly approve through statute or regulation the use of coal combustion bottom ash as a traction agent.
''Rural municipalities commonly use coal combustion bottom ash as an effective and cost-saving material in place of sand,'' she said.
Ms. Severino said studies conducted show there are no chemicals in the ash above a concentration that will have an environmental impact.
''It's beneficial to re-use a material like this because it saves landfill space (for material that may cause environmental impact), and it will also minimize potential environmental damage that can be caused by mining sand and gravel for this use,'' she said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is also evaluating whether current management practices for coal combustion waste pose risks to human health or environment. The study is still in draft form.