Even if we prevent coal companies from leveling, deforesting, and polluting much of Appalachia by stopping mountaintop removal mining, coal will still not be clean. Even if we stop the release of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, coal will still not be clean. Coal-fired power plants produce mountains of combustion waste which have the potential to contaminate ground and surface water with toxic heavy metals like arsenic.
The New York Times had a nice description of the problem:
America’s power plants produce 130 million tons of coal ash a year, enough to fill a train of boxcars stretching from the District of Columbia to Australia. Some of this is usefully, safely and profitably recycled to make concrete and other construction materials. Much of it winds up in lightly regulated landfills, some as big as 1,500 acres, where toxic pollutants like arsenic and lead can leach into the water table.
To keep coal profitable, the mountains of coal combustion waste must be disposed of cheaply and the public kept blind to the dangers of contamination.
The mountains of coal ash continue to grow
This graph shows the tons of coal produced by year (blue) and tons used by industry for construction or other purposes (green) (scale on left axis). The difference between the blue and green lines represents the amount of ash stored in impoundments and landfills. Yellow line shows percentage of coal ash used (scale on right axis). See Green Grok for more discussion.
The coal protection society attacks
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is threatening to upset the coal gravy train of waste and pollution. The EPA will announce its decision in April of whether or not to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. As a non-hazardous waste, coal ash is poorly regulated, allowing utilities to dump its ash mountains cheaply with little regard to public health. The EPA has plenty of evidence that coal ash has the potential to contaminate ground and surface water with heavy metals. The real question is whether the EPA under Obama has the will to fight the coal protection society and their political minions.
Three approaches to regulate coal combustion residuals (CCR) as part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) are under consideration. The business-as-usual approach would be to regulate CCR with existing hazardous waste exemptions left unchanged. The strict regulation approach would be to regulate CCRs as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C. This would require cradle to the grave monitoring of wastes and the EPA would be responsible for issuing permits for waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities. A hybrid approach would designate CCRs as hazardous waste but stipulate safe secondary uses and provide guidance to states for regulating storage and disposal. (The EPA can authorize states to operate portions or all of the hazardous waste program in lieu of EPA operating the program.)
The utilities have already enlisted many spineless politicians to fight against regulating coal ash as hazardous waste. They want "coal combustion by-products" to be treated like magic dust. These mountains of magic dust have many wonderful uses and are only dangerous if stored in leaky ponds like the one that spilled 1 billion gallons of sludge in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008. Here is a listing of spineless members of the House and Senate that oppose EPA designation of coal ash as hazardous waste. The content of the House and Senate letters to the EPA parallels the basic talking points found in utility industry publications such as this one.
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Three industry canards
Three canards have been offered by opponents of regulating coal ash as a hazardous material. (1) State regulatory mechanisms are sufficient to protect public health. (2) Coal ash does not pose a health hazard due to toxic contamination. (3) Benefits of secondary uses for coal ash outweigh risks and regulations would interfere with secondary uses.
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State regulation. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. A Department of Energy report in 2000 found significant "gaps in oversight." Those gaps in oversight seem to have grown over the past decade. Here is a sampling of those state agencies in action regulating coal ash at the time of the Kingston disaster. (Note how many pronounced their coal ash impoundments safe after the Kingston disaster only to have the EPA find structurally unsound sites at high hazard risk for failure.)
Tennessee (Home of the Kingston disaster and 3 additional EPA high hazard risk impoundments)
HARRIMAN, Tenn. — The Tennessee Valley Authority knew for the past decade of leaks at the fly ash retention pond that ruptured in Roane County two weeks ago, TVA and state inspection reports show.
Alabama (Home to a failure at Widows Creek impoundment three weeks after the Kingston disaster and 2 additional EPA high hazard risk impoundments )
MONTGOMERY -- Utilities operate coal ash retention ponds at nine locations in Alabama and all have passed inspection since a retention pond in east Tennessee spilled more than a billion gallons of gray ash.
TVA spokesman John Moulton said Tuesday the utility's ponds at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Stevenson and the Colbert Fossil Plant in Tuscumbia are inspected regularly and were inspected again after the spill. "They are all in good shape right now," he said.
North Carolina (Home to 12 EPA high hazard risk impoundments)
RALEIGH – Gov. Perdue this week urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that would increase the safety oversight of coal ash ponds in North Carolina. The legislation would subject the dams that create coal ash ponds to direct inspection by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Currently, power companies are only required to file reports every five years by private engineers on the structural conditions of the dams. The impoundments are exempt from regulation under the N.C. Dam Safety Act.
Arizona (Home to 9 EPA high hazard risk impoundments)
The dams that hold coal-ash sludge for Arizona's utilities are in decent shape, according to inspection reports, making it unlikely a catastrophe like what happened in Tennessee last month could affect the state.
West Virginia (Home to 4 EPA high hazard risk impoundments)
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Most of the coal-ash impoundments in West Virginia haven't been examined by a state dam safety inspector for at least five years, according to data released by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
After the Kingston disaster, state agencies responsible for monitoring coal ash impoundments either admitted they had not inspected the sites in years or pronounced them safe only to have the EPA find serious structural flaws in some sites. Yet, we are supposed to have faith that these same state agencies have the ability and resources to protect the public as the amount of coal combustion waste continues to accumulate in power plant impoundments and in landfills.
State agencies have also turned a blind eye to toxic contamination at coal ash waste storage sites. As noted in the next section, high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals have been found in groundwater at over 100 ash storage sites. The contamination at these sites has been found by studies funded by the EPA and environmental groups, not by the state agencies responsible for regulation. Even when contamination is reported to state regulators, they fail to take action. For example, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control entered into a consent agreement with a utility that allowed arsenic contamination in ash storage areas to reach 3000 parts per billion in groundwater. And here is how the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) "regulated" a landfill containing the coal ash waste from the Kingston spill.
People throughout the community report nightly pumping of stinking gray / tannish waste from the landfill. I have personally seen it and documented the pumps, the gray sludge leaving the site. Arsenic and other pollutants of concern have been reported to EPA and ADEM to no resolve. To-date, we can find NO reports showing where sampling has been done or toxic releases documented. I personally informed Mr. John Hagood, interim director ADEM of these illicit night time discharges but ADEM has chosen not to investigate. Instead, all the report says is that Mr. Cook, landfill manager denies the claim. No tests, no samples, no interviews of employees or nearby residents effected, just a simple denial by the manager was good enough to refute hundreds of photos, certified lab results, anecdotal stories from the community, or first hand eye witness account by me.
To date, state agencies have failed to protect the public against catastrophic ash pond spills like Kingston or high levels of toxic contamination in and around storage sites. Hazardous waste classification would force states to adhere to a national standard of inspection and contaminant monitoring. It would not allow them to inspect every five years or only when the site operator voluntarily reported a problem. It would make state regulators accountable to the EPA. Not surprisingly, many state environment and utility regulators are fighting the EPA classification of coal ash as hazardous waste (see list here).
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Toxicity. Not one letter from industry, elected representatives, or state regulatory agencies petitioning the EPA to not to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste mentioned the potential for heavy metal contamination to ground and surface water at storage sites. Not one. Yes, the Bush administration did everything in its power to hide EPA studies related to toxicity. Ignorance is no longer an excuse as the EPA made those studies readily available after Obama assumed control of the agency.
The 2007 risk assessment identified 71 coal combustion waste damage cases, 23 of which caused off-site contamination.
The EPA‘s 2007 risk assessment shows that the disposal of coal ash, especially in unlined ponds, results in alarmingly high risks of cancer and diseases of the heart, lung, liver, stomach and other organs and can seriously harm aquatic ecosystems and wildlife near disposal sites. These risks are driven by exposure to toxic metals that leach from groundwater into drinking water, surface waters and sediment. Some of the sites evaluated by the EPA may no longer be active, but the Agency has warned that contamination from coal ash ponds will not peak until about 78 to 105 years after waste is dumped, while peak exposure from landfills may occur after even longer periods of time.
An analysis of 31 additional coal combustion waste sites was recently completed by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice organizations.
This report brings to light 31 coal combustion waste sites that are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, creeks, or rivers in 14 states: Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
At 15 of the 31 sites, contamination has already migrated off the power plant property (off-site) at levels that exceed drinking water or surface water quality standards. The remaining 16 show evidence of severe on-site pollution.
The 31 sites described in this report represent only a fraction of the contaminated coal ash sites currently leaking poisons into streams, rivers, aquifers and wetlands throughout the United States. If one considers that over 100 damage cases have been identified, this alone represents about 15% of the coal-fired power plants presently operating in the United States. Yet EPA has acknowledged that most coal ash ponds and a significant portion of coal ash landfills are unlined (or inadequately lined) and unmonitored.
Limited data on toxicity might have warranted inaction in 2000, but that excuse is no longer remotely defensible. There is no legitimate reason to preserve the hazardous waste exemption for coal combustion wastes.
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Beneficial use. Classification as a hazardous waste does not prevent its use in cement or building materials. Hazardous materials are used in industrial processes all the time. It does mean that putting them in unlined or rarely inspected impoundments or landfills. In fact, if most states and pretentious public servants cared about this issue as much as they pretend in their slobbering letters, then they would road and building construction contracts to use cement with coal ash content.
A game is being played here. The amount of coal ash waste being generated is overwhelming disposal sites. Currently, 55% of coal ash is impounded, which amounts to 72 million tons per year at current generation rates. The industry is claiming that hazardous waste regulations would stop beneficial uses when all it would do is increase the costs of disposal by prohibiting unsafe management practices. Coal ash does make a fine additive to concrete and other building materials. Unless you require that all concrete contain coal ash however, the supply of coal ash will far exceed the demand for defensible use. Kudos to the New York Times for making the point effectively.
The recycling market will not disappear. Materials that are responsibly recycled are not, typically, designated as hazardous. The real problem is the 60 percent or so of the coal ash that winds up in porous landfills. Evidence suggests that tough but carefully tailored rules could encourage even more recycling, protecting the environment while yielding income to help pay for more secure landfills.
Here is an example of a politician that had a difficult time making a coherent case regarding secondary use of coal ash even using the crib notes from industry lobbyists. (I cannot believe this slub is my Senator.)
I have been told previous Agency regulatory determinations have advised that coal combustion by-products not used for beneficial use should be disposed in landfills and surface impoundments with composite liners to reduce risk to human and ecological health. However, coal combustion by-products used beneficially, other than for mine-filling, should not be categorized as a hazardous waste as they are not a waste, but an ingredient in applications that conserve natural resources and reduce disposal costs.
Senator, did they tell you that the regulations in 2000 advised rather required disposal in protected impoundments? Did they tell you that the Bush administration allowed the coal industry to help write and veto regulations governing coal ash for 8 years before Kingston disaster? Did they tell you how many unlined or structurally unsound impoundments currently contain coal ash waste? Did they tell you that Blagojevich was a corrupt twit that tried to sell a Senate seat appointment to the highest bidder? That one I suspect you heard about.
The final inconvenient truth about secondary use of coal ash is that all not uses are justifiable. Some uses are potentially harmful. Some are little more uncontrolled dump sites for mountains of coal ash. Here are two examples of potentially dangerous use of coal ash, both of which involve convenient dumping of coal ash waste as fill material in construction sites and mountaintop removal mining sites.
Every year, about 11.5 million tons of coal ash are placed in structural fills such as highway embankments or building foundations. Because this reuse is subject to little or no regulation in many states, some structural fills may be little more than dumpsites in disguise. Two structural fills identified in this study — Rocky Acres in Illinois and Swift Creek in North Carolina — have polluted groundwater. At the Swift Creek fill, oozing arsenic contaminated an off-site aquifer. Both cases illustrate the importance of setting standards to ensure that recycling of ash is done responsibly and not used as a loophole for the back door disposal of material that is hazardous when mismanaged.
Coal combustion residue—the material that is left once coal has been burned, as in a power plant—is sometimes placed on surface mines to abate acid mine drainage. According to OSM, the residue may also be used to enhance soil, seal and encapsulate material, and backfill mine sites. If coal combustion residue were deemed a hazardous waste, surface mines receiving such materials might be subjected to RCRA’s hazardous waste provisions and could be forced to address releases of hazardous wastes.
The bottom line is that EPA regulation of coal combustion waste does not interfere with appropriate uses of this material, but will make potentially dangerous applications more difficult.
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Please take action:
At the moment, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is holding up the release of new regulations. The OMB and EPA are being barraged with pleas from the coal industry, utilities, business groups, state regulatory agencies, and politicians opposing classification of coal ash waste as a hazardous material. It would be extremely helpful if you would take a moment to drop a line to the OMB and EPA to encourage them to move forward with regulation of coal combustion waste as a hazardous material. Remind them that the patchwork of state regulatory agencies has failed to protect the public against spills and contamination, there is overwhelming evidence of heavy metal toxic contamination in water on or near containment sites, and secondary uses need to be tightly regulated using a national standard to prevent contamination of water resources.
Use this form from the Natural Resource Defense Council to provide feedback to the OMB: