By Carol Costello and Ronni Berke, CNN
Chuck Newell runs the National Gypsum Plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. His company makes drywall: in fact, National Gypsum's drywall could be in your home right now. National Gypsum is proudly "green." All of the drywall manufactured there is made of synthetic gypsum - a substance recycled from material taken directly from First Energy Corporation's nearby Bruce Mansfield power plant after it burns coal to make electricity.
In a good year, Newell says, the plant will operate 24/7, using an excess of 800,000 tons of material. But after the housing crisis forced him to cut his plant's operations to just three days a week, Newell is worried things might get even worse.
His "green company" may go bust because the EPA is considering whether to label all waste from coal burning plants - like coal ash and synthetic gypsum - hazardous."Our biggest concern is that if we are qualified in with the rest of the material that comes from the power plant, as hazardous, or even if we're given an offset category that our product may be tainted," Newell says. The stigma, he fears, will stick.
Here is one reason why: Little Blue Run, FirstEnergy's 976-acre retention pond, where tons of coal ash ends up. Coal ash contains arsenic,cadmium and lead - substances that can cause cancer.
Neighbors fear the stuff is seeping into the ground water and into their underground wells. Both the Pennyslvania Department of Environmental Protection and FirstEnergy say Little Blue has not contaminated any residential drinking well.
National Gypsum doesn't get any of its raw material from Little Blue. The synthetic gypsum comes from taking waste from smokestack gases, and passing it through limestone slurry, to create gypsum. Combining gypsum with recycled paper creates the plant's drywall.
Newell is sympathetic to those who want tougher restrictions on coal ash, but says not all waste from the burning of coal is hazardous. According to the EPA, synthetic gypsum poses no health risks. "There's nothing hazardous about it, it's the equivalent of natural gypsum that you mine in a quarry," Newell says. It is so ubiquitous, Newell adds, it is even found in the offices of the EPA in Washington. The EPA should make a final decision on whether to label coal waste hazardous next year. It estimates the cost of adopting the proposal that changes coal ash to "hazardous" waste to be about $1.5 billion dollars - but says the costs will be offset by health and other benefits. Most of the initial costs would likely be passed on to consumers, both the EPA and power industry officials say.