Coal Ash in Minefills
March 2, 2012
This essay is in response to: 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?
We live in northern West Virginia where minefill disposal of
coal ash is pervasive. In the early 1990’s, a beneficial-use rider in the WV
Solid Waste Management Rule (The Rule)
legislated that surface mines reclaimed with coal combustion by-products need
not have leachate liners nor water-treatment systems other than for acid mine
drainage (AMD) parameters (i.e., pH, iron, manganese, and aluminum). The rider
externalizes the costs that should be imposed on the extractive and
electrical-generating industries, allowing them to freely dispose of their
waste in unregulated landfills rather than have to pay for the containment and
treatment of surface and ground water pollutants that The Rule was intended to
regulate. We initially thought this was a local issue, but we now know that improper
disposal of coal ash is occurring throughout the US and adversely affects the
health of humans and the environment.
The bottom of this West Virginia mine pit is being covered with a layer of coal ash from a coal-fired power plant. While some minefill involves dumping coal ash into deep mineshafts, in this instance and many others the ash is dumped into the pit of a surface mine. This results in exposure to the water table, increasing the likelihood of toxicants leaching into groundwater; runoff from precipitation, posing a threat to surface waters; and a high risk of airborne ash. Coal ash disposal can generate dangerous quantities of so-called “fugitive dust,” whether due to dumping or to coal ash transport. The coal ash is brought to this minefill by truck, and the authors estimate that during working hours, an ash truck leaves the power plant about every 7 minutes. Several homes lie within about 500 feet of this surface mine; many more lie along the roads to the mine. All are exposed to fugitive dust.
In our watershed, Scotts Run, about 23% of the total land
area is already composed of coal ash minefill dumps. Up to 10,000 tons per acre
have been dumped on at least 3,500 acres of reclaimed surface mines in the last
12 years in three watersheds near the community of Cassville. Hundreds more
minefill acres are being added every year. The high-sulfur coal being mined
near our home is burned with limestone at a local “alternative energy” fluidized
bed combustion (FBC) power plant. The FBC method removes 90% or more of the
toxic metals (mercury, arsenic, boron, beryllium, thallium, etc.) from the
smoke stack emissions, but concentrates them in the ash. This highly alkaline, contaminant-laden
ash is then deposited back in surface mines as a “beneficial use” byproduct,
which makes it legal to strip mine these high-sulfur coal seams. Were it not
for the special exemption in The Rule, the high-sulfur coal seams in and around
Cassville could not be mined.
The Rule assumes that coal ash is beneficial in minefills because
it reduces AMD and ignores studies documenting that toxic metals concentrated
in coal ash are leaching into groundwater and surface waters. Studies by the National
Academy of Sciences (nationally),
the Clean Air Task Force (Pennsylvania),
and Downstream Strategies (West Virginia) found
high concentrations of toxic trace metals and total dissolved solids (TDS)
leaching from coal ash dumped on surface mines. At the same time, the Pennsylvania study found
that AMD was not reduced at half the mines examined. Analysis of surface water
monitoring data from a northern West Virginia coal refuse area that was
reclaimed with approximately 1.5 to 2.2 million tons of coal ash revealed
antimony, arsenic, lead, selenium, and thallium concentrations that were 2-140
times greater than WV State water quality standards (WQS).
The runoff from surface mines near Cassville contained concentrations of manganese,
selenium, and arsenic that exceeded the WV numerical WQS by 2-30 times, as well
as sulfate, TDS and conductivity greatly
exceeding narrative WQS.
Each new mine that is approved by the West Virginia
Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency responsible for
issuing surface mine permits, adds to the daily load of metallic pollutants,
sulfates, and other indicators of ionic stress such as TDS and specific
conductivity. These pollutants adversely affect the physiology and behavior of
freshwater aquatic life to the point where many species have been displaced
from the portions of Scotts Run downstream of
the mines. By continually approving new point sources of pollutants that
exceed WQS, the DEP is violating the Clean Water Act. Aquatic systems never
have the opportunity to recover.
Near Maidsville, W VA. This is a roughly 140-acre coal ash/coal refuse dump. Both substances are brought to the site by truck. The white and light gray portions are coal ash from the Fort Martin and the Hatfields Ferry coal-fired power plants. “We’re not certain,” write the authors, “but the dark gray/black portions may be a mixture of coal refuse and ash, so everything above the brown section crossing the center of the photo [may be] coal ash/refuse.” When another power plant came online recently, the additional ash generated prompted the application for an expansion of this site to about 355 acres. Photo: Petra Wood and John Wood
Based on review of mine permit applications, we estimate
that about 10 million tons of coal ash have been dumped on surface mines near
Cassville since 1999. To put this in perspective, EPA recently reported that
about 10.5 million tons of coal ash were used in the entire U.S. for
mining applications during 1998. In
addition, a coal ash/coal refuse area complex a few miles north of where we
live has already stockpiled millions of tons on several hundred acres and is
proposing to dump an additional 2.85 million tons of coal refuse and coal ash
every year, for 25 to 30 years, on 355 acres in an unlined pile that would be approximately
500 feet deep. The permits
that DEP has issued for these mines require little monitoring in the short-term,
and no long-term monitoring particularly for toxic metals concentrated in coal
ash ─ meaning that the long-term effects of coal ash deposition on human and
environmental health, and on our air and water resources, is playing second
fiddle to corporate profits.
Hundreds of acres of exposed coal ash that lie on the
surface of unreclaimed mines near our home have remained exposed to the open
air for years. Although no air quality monitoring is occurring, we suspect that
air quality is degraded by airborne fly ash which includes fine, glassy
particulates in the respirable (PM2.5) and thoracic (PM10) size ranges. When it
is dumped from trucks onto the mines, moved around with bulldozers, or blown
around by wind, it becomes airborne and leaves the mines as fugitive dust. Trucks
leaving the mines carry considerable amounts of dirt and coal ash onto public
roads, resulting in clouds of ash. How does the airborne coal ash affect the health
of families living nearby? In northern WV, hundreds of families live near these
mines. For example, just one 225 acre mine has approximately 500 homes nearby.
Despite the evidence, DEP continues to disregard the
cumulative adverse impacts of coal ash use in these minefills. Coal ash must be
disposed of responsibly; the owners and operators of these minefills must be
required to install leachate liners and wastewater treatment systems. These are
extra costs for companies, but a mining or utility company that generates
wastes should have to pay for proper disposal just like everyone else must pay
for disposal of the waste they generate. Our community and hundreds of others
around the country should not continue to be used as a dumping ground for
PSR invites concerned readers to sign our petition urging
President Obama to direct the EPA to issue strong coal ash protections.
 National Academy
of Sciences. 2006. Managing coal combustion residues in mines. The National
Academies Press, Washington,
 Hansen, E. and M. Christ. 2005.
Water quality impacts of coal combustion waste disposal in two West Virginia coal mines.
Morgantown, WV: Downstream Strategies. April.