Bills Would Put Byproducts in Soil, Roads

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Lansing, Mich. (WILX) A three-piece set of "Beneficial Use Bills" would clear the way for companies to use industrial byproducts -- such as coal ash and residuals from paper -- in construction materials, roads and even in the soil on farms.

"There's a lot of materials and opportunities for industry to work together with other industries and use some other materials that there's some crossover value with," said Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who sponsored one of the bills.

As a dairy farmer in the Upper Peninsula, he frequently uses residuals from a paper mill. He says he'd hate for those byproducts to go to waste.

"Right now what happens is materials get landfilled," he said. "And so we're filling up our landfills with products that have productive other uses. So this is in a way a massive recycling bill."

McBroom's bill has already passed both chambers in the state legislature. It's one of two that waits for Gov. Rick Snyder's signature. The third has been sent back to the house with amendments from the senate.

All byproducts used by companies will have to undergo rigorous testing and analysis from the state Department of Agriculture. That's a major sticking point for the Michigan Farm Bureau, which supports the bills.

"It's significant," said Matt Smego, manager of the Bureau's governmental relations division. "Our members really want it to have a beneficial value but clearly they want to make sure it's scientifically researched and approved."

All byproducts would need to be licensed and tested annually. They also would have to meet the outstanding Fertilizer Act, which requires that whatever goes into the soil has amending or beneficial value for farmers.

The Michigan Farm Bureau says byproducts like coal ash can help keep moisture in the soil.

Some environmental groups -- which supporters say were consulted but may still oppose the bills -- say they don't see materials like coal ash as "beneficial."

"People need to remember that coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal," said Nic Clark, the Michigan director of Clean Water Action. "So the same stuff that goes up in the smokestacks, like mercury, lead and arsenic, is what's left over."

Clark says the bills were pushed through the legislature too quickly, without enough time for significant discussion.

There are a variety of ways to dispose of coal ash, Clark said, but the proposed method -- known as "unencapsulated," or not surrounded in concrete -- is dangerous. When rain and the ash mix, it could ease the pathway for the ash to enter the water supply, he said.

"Michigan is really becoming a tourist destination for our fresh produce and agricultural products," he said. "We have a concern with our fresh agriculture being labeled with this coal ash. Would you want to go out to eat knowing your salad or produce was grown in a field that contains mercury, arsenic, or lead? I think many people would say no."

But the Michigan Manufacturers Association, which backs the bills, says the coal ash and farmland issue is being blown out of proportion.

Most of the byproducts will be used in concrete or asphalt, said Director of Environmental and Regulatory Policy Andy Such.

"We won't use more coal because we find a use for coal ash," he said. "Coal ash right now is either being used productively, or it's going to a landfill."

Such cites rigorous testing as a safety measure that came from environmental groups.

"We don't think it presents any sort of threat to human health in the environment," he said. "And more importantly, it's under the control as I pointed out, of the Department of Agriculture."

But opponents say any new process comes with problems, accidents and oversights.

"We like the way things are today," said Nic Clark of Clean Water Action. "I don't think there's a huge demand out there for this in our farming practices."

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