How toxic is coal ash, the waste material left after coal is burned? How does it come to poison the waters and dust the land in communities across the nation? And what can be done to prevent further toxic contamination?
The 2008 coal ash spill from TVA's power plant in Kingston, TN flooded the surrounding community with toxic sludge. Photo: United Mountain Defense.
Many of us know that coal, when burned in power plants,
emits mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants
harmful to health. What fewer of us know is that coal's post-combustion wastes contain
a highly concentrated toxic stew of heavy metals, from arsenic, boron, and
chromium to lead, mercury, selenium, and zinc.
Massive amounts of coal ash are generated every day by
electrical generating plants; in fact, coal ash is the second-largest
industrial waste stream in the U.S., exceeded only by mining wastes. Power
companies dispose of coal ash in enormous reservoirs, euphemistically referred
to as "ponds;" in huge mounds of dry ash; and by dumping it in abandoned mines.
All too frequently, these disposal methods allow coal ash toxins to spill, leak,
leach or blow onto nearby land, waterways, underground water supplies and
drinking water wells.
The result: levels of contaminants that can exceed the
levels safe for human consumption or for the environment.
Relatively simple technologies exist that can contain coal
ash and prevent contamination. But in the absence of federal regulation, many
states allow coal ash to be dumped as freely as if it were household garbage. This
month's Environmental Health Policy Institute explores the threats to human
health posed by coal ash disposal. It details the toxic contaminants in coal
ash, the pathways to exposure for human communities, and the readily available
means by which exposure could be prevented.
It also includes three portraits of
homes, lands, and lives irrevocably damaged by coal ash, told by the people who
live it. These terribly poignant accounts bring home like nothing else the
dangers, the magnitude, and the tragedy of unsafe coal ash disposal.
Alabama's Blackbelt Region: A land forgotten, contaminated by coal ash
Where is the Coal Ash Rule? When we learn nothing from disasters, disastrous consequences await
Coal Ash: Not good for anyone's backyard
Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT
Coal Ash: the toxic legacy of the nation’s dependence on coal burning
Lisa Widawsky Hallowell
Coal Ash Contaminates Big Sky Country
EPA Relies on Inadequate Test to Assess Dangerous Leaching
Coal Ash in Minefills
Petra Wood and John Wood
The views expressed in these essays are those of their respective
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Physicians for
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