Coal ash: A toxic threat
March 15, 2010
Last week I led a small PSR delegation to meet with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to discuss the health hazards of coal ash.
OMB is an executive branch office that reviews the costs and legal implications of agency rules. In this case, we were asking the OMB to finish reviewing a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would tighten up the handling of coal ash.
Coal ash is the stuff that remains after coal is burned: cinders, ash, and the pollution particles that smokestack “scrubbers” remove from the smoke. These wastes have to go somewhere, so they’re often mixed with water and stored in huge waste ponds. A huge mass of toxic slurry builds up, laden with arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, sulfur, and other toxics, including carcinogens. They can leach into water and, at some storage sites, infiltrate and contaminate surface and ground water, including drinking supplies.
How ironic: As we make the air cleaner, we’re making the water toxic.
Coal ash storage sites exist across the country. Yet because coal ash is not currently classified as a hazardous waste, how it is stored and how it can be used is essentially left to the states. In some places, coal ash “impoundment areas” are held back by nothing more than an earthen dam. When the dam on a coal ash pond burst in Kingston, TN in late 2008, it flooded 300 acres of nearby river valley with thick, toxic sludge.
Coal ash is also “recycled,” and some of those uses allow high exposure to water. Coal ash is used as land fill, for example, in old mines and quarries. Tragically, coal ash from fill sites has contaminated aquifers and public drinking supplies.
Another currently accepted use: Coal cinders are spread on high school running tracks and snowy roads.
The potential risks to health are huge. That’s why PSR supports classifying coal ash as hazardous waste, phasing out wet storage, and requiring ash to be stored in properly engineered dry landfills.
That can only happen after the OMB completes its review, allowing the EPA to release its proposed rule for public comment. It’s high time.