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Pollution prevention.

Ash-Recycling And Land-Reclamation Programs Instituted by AP&L

Earlier this month, the communications department of Arkansas Power & Light Co. entered an Environmental Protection Agency awards program for pollution prevention.

On the cover of the thick awards application are before-and-after photos of a landfill at the White Bluff Steam Electric Station, a coal-burning power plant near the Arkansas River in Redfield.

The first photograph shows a barren surface. There are no trees. No grass. No vegetation. Erosion is evident.

The second photograph shows Barry Snow, an AP&L technical support specialist at White Bluff, up to his chest in switchgrass.

Both photographs were taken at the same location.

A decade earlier, Snow would never have believed he could be standing in tall grass.

"The first year we planted it, it was just all roots and no tops," Snow says. "I said, 'Oh, no. That's $300,000 down the drain.'"

But the investment eventually paid off.

On a clear February day, a decade after the first seeds were planted, a visit to the 25 acres is like a visit to the Grand Prairie. There is evidence of deer, rabbits and even wild turkeys.

This reclamation project is not the only environmental activity at White Bluff.

Less than a mile away, sooty fly ash -- a limestone-like residue of coal-burning plants -- is being loaded onto a covered truck.

Later, a barge filled with fly ash will move down the Arkansas River. The product will be delivered to locations throughout the South.

Fly ash and a heavier bottom ash known as slag are produced in mass quantities when coal is burned.

Fly ash is not a hazardous waste. But its disposal has been a nuisance for years. In fact, it is the world's most common industrial solid waste.

Marketing Fly Ash

An average of 45 to 50 tons of fly ash are created hourly at White Bluff. Several years ago, that fly ash would have been disposed of in federally approved areas near the plant.

In the 1980s, AP&L officials discovered that fly ash could be marketed. It could be blended with cement, used in highway construction, dam construction, even bowling balls.

AP&L reached an agreement with contractor Donny Thomas of Pine Bluff, who markets fly ash across the region, mostly to cement companies. About 70 percent of the fly ash produced at White Bluff is now marketed.

"In essence, we took a $300,000-per-year disposal expense and turned it into a revenue maker," says John Heuston, a communications specialist and ecology coordinator for AP&L.

Thomas bid for the rights to market fly ash from the company's White Bluff and Newark plants in 1987. He agreed to pay AP&L a percentage of his revenues.

During the past three years, the fly ash marketing program has yielded an average annual profit of $400,000 for AP&L. That makes for a $700,000 annual windfall when one figures in the disposal costs that no longer are required.

Customers of Thomas' Fly Ash Products Inc. mostly use fly ash as a cement substitute or additive.

But new uses for the product are being discovered regularly.

Fly ash can be used as a fertilizer, a soil stabilizer, even an ingredient in automobile exteriors.

"If you've ever bowled with a Brunswick bowling ball, you've bowled with fly ash," Thomas says.

The idea of using fly ash is not new. In 1934, a bridge running from Mobile, Ala., to Dauphin Island in the Gulf of Mexico was built partially with fly ash. It stood for more than 50 years. But only in the past few years have utility companies fully realized the marketing potential of the waste product.

The White Bluff plant produces some of the nation's highest-quality fly ash.

Coal burned there is imported from Wyoming, which has an abundance of low-sulfur coal that does not require scrubbing to meet EPA standards. Older plants, especially those in the Northeast, tend to burn sulfur-dense coal.

While about 70 percent of the White Bluff fly ash is marketed, the national recycling average is only 20 percent.

AP&L officials are confident of the marketability of fly ash. The White Bluff plant's 156-acre landfill was designed to contain 20 years of production wastes based on the selling of 50 percent of the fly ash.

The marketing program is a proven winner, just like the land reclamation project Snow spearheaded.

A Better Idea

A native of Jackson, Miss., Snow earned bachelor's degrees in environmental chemistry and freshwater biology from the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg. He also has a master's degree in botany from Mississippi State University at Starkville.

Shortly after joining AP&L 10 years ago, the botanist faced the prospect of growing something out of nothing. Ash-laden landfills are not conducive to vegetation.

The joke around the White Bluff plant is that Snow succeeded in making grass grow on concrete.

The usual approach in such land reclamation efforts is to plant grasses that tolerate poor conditions but provide nothing for wildlife.

"I wanted to do something better," Snow says.

He and AP&L employees such as Bob West, a senior biologist, thus began efforts to transform landfill sites -- high in acidic soil -- into prairies.

"By law, we have to restore the vegetation," Heuston says. "But nothing would grow there. Finally, they decided to create some prairie."

The project is designed to halt erosion and rebuild the soil over time. Also, by using prairie species native to Arkansas such as switchgrass, food is provided for wildlife. Evidence is provided by the many deer tracks in the mud.

Snow scrapes the soil beneath the vegetation, examining what nature has accomplished since the project began in 1983. The soil is becoming richer.

Snow's dream?

"If AP&L pulls out in 30 years and leaves this behind, the land will be fine. We will have given back what we've taken."

"This project not only prevents water pollution by controlling erosion, it adds to the state's botanical diversity by restoring some native prairie and creating a home for the animals and birds that favor a prairie habitat," says Steve Wilson, director of the state Game & Fish Commission.

Employees at the White Bluff plant have discovered 17 rare plant species on company land. That's more good news for environmentalists.
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Title Annotation:Corporate Conservation, part 3; Arkansas Power and Light Co.'s ash-recycling and land-reclamation programs
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Feb 24, 1992
Previous Article:Water power.
Next Article:Keeping an eye on the environment.

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