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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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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?

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb
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.

Responses

Alabama's Blackbelt Region: A land forgotten, contaminated by coal ash
Barbara Evans

Where is the Coal Ash Rule? When we learn nothing from disasters, disastrous consequences await
Lisa Evans

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
Clint McRae

EPA Relies on Inadequate Test to Assess Dangerous Leaching
Eric Schaeffer

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 Social Responsibility.

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