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       Coal Ash  


 Coal Ash Chronicles - a web site dedicated to this issue.




Coal ash is an umbrella term. It includes bottom ash, which settles in boilers; fly ash, a powdery material captured in exhaust stacks; and gypsum, a by-product of smokestack "scrubbing". There are more than 1,300 coal ash dumps in the U.S., most of them unregulated and unmonitored that contain billions of gallons of fly ash and other by-products of burning coal. Most of these dumps, which reach up to 1,500 acres, contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Yet they are not subject to any federal regulation.
The amount of coal ash has ballooned in part because of increased demand for electricity, but more because air pollution controls have improved. The
amount being produced each year, 131 million tons in 2007, is up from less than 90 million tons in 1990. Contaminants and waste products that once spewed through the coal plants’ smokestacks are increasingly captured in the form of solid waste, held in huge piles in 46 states. 
Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans, and can decimate fish, bird and frog populations in and around ash dumps, causing developmental problems like tadpoles born without teeth, or fish with severe spinal deformities. (link)
 
          Below:
  • How serious is the issue
  • The EPA position
  • What toxins are in coal ash
  • The Kingston Tennessee spill
  • Uses of coal ash
Additional Resources:
How serious is the issue

For decades, the dangers of coal ash have largely been hidden from public view. Today, there are 194 landfills and 161 ponds containing coal ash from 500 power plants in 47 states nationwide according to 2005 data from the Department of Energy, the latest available. Each year power companies generate approximately 130 million tons of coal ash - enough to fill a million railroad cars. Industry representatives estimate 43 percent of coal ash now gets recycled in such items as concrete or wallboard - two "beneficial uses" that use one type of coal ash. But that still leaves more than 70 million tons of ash annually for companies to dump in lagoons, landfills, and, more recently, mine pits. The ash amounts to dirty stuff, replete with toxic constituents - arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and many others - that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health. Exposure to its toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems. There is no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal - much of it stunningly casual - is largely left to the states.  more  

March 2017: USA is importing coal ash. Shipping containers full of coal ash from China, Poland and India have come into the U.S. through the Port of Virginia as foreign companies find a market for the same industrial waste that America's utilities are struggling to dispose of. Critics call it a missed opportunity. Coal ash is useful for projects from roads to concrete to wallboard. The nation’s shift away from coal for electricity has reduced the supply of fresh coal ash, forcing industries that depend on it to look farther afield. link

August 2016: Toxic coal ash pits ‘too expensive’ to clean up. Nearly a decade after the worst coal ash spills in U.S. history, a federally owned public utility is closing 10 toxic coal ash pits across Tennessee and Alabama. But it won’t clear up the toxic residue from the pits, leaving open the possibility of water contamination. The Tennessee Valley Authority ssid  it planned to cap-in-place 10 unlined coal ash at six plants where the ash was dumped for some 50 years. link

June 2016: Research links contamination to coal ash ponds. New research by Duke University scientists indicates that unlined coal ash basins throughout the Southeast have contaminated nearby surface and groundwater with toxic elements, and that closing the ponds doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Each of 21 sites showed higher concentrations of common coal ash contaminants, and nearly one-third exceeded US EPA standards for drinking and aquatic life. link

September 2015: EPA to add new rule on coal ash discharges. After decades of inaction, the federal government will release its second major rule affecting coal ash from power plants in less than a year. Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency released the first federal rules on ash disposal. This month, the agency will set the first federal limits on toxic metals – mostly from ash – in wastewater discharges from power plants. The rule is significant, but its reach will be limited. Most utilities, including Duke Energy, are moving to dry-handling of ash that avoids discharges. Ponds that store ash in wet form and drain to rivers and lakes are being phased out in North Carolina link (Charlotte Observer) 

March 2014: EPA to act on coal ash. Power producers’ coal ash disposal ponds like the one that leaked toxic sludge into a North Carolina river in February may soon become a thing of the past. After six years of deliberation, the U.S. EPA in May will decide on changes to the Clean Water Act that would direct power companies to remove dangerous impurities, including carcinogens, from coal ash wastewater before releasing it into rivers that supply drinking water. While the new regulations will not prohibit riverside coal ash disposal sites, the increased cost of wastewater treatment, up to $1 billion for the industry each year, could persuade power producers to move such sites inland. link  (Pictured: Water is seen draining into the Dan River from a coal ash pond at the site of the Duke Energy coal-fired power plant in Eden, North Carolina. Credit: Reuters/Chris Keane)  

December 2013: Study says coal ash kills 900,000 fish a year in North Carolina. Coal ash is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of fish in a North Carolina lake, according to a new study commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The study found some species showed deformities such as curved spines, misshaped or missing fins, and mouth and jaw defects, defects that the study said are consistent with elevated levels of selenium, a toxic element found in coal ash. link

June 2009: EPA disclose the location of 44 coal ash disposal sites. A little while back, news spread that the Department of Homeland Security was refusing to reveal the locations of 44 coal ash dump sites--on the grounds that it was a matter of national security. Now, the EPA has revealed the locations of the sites that have a 'high hazard rating'--ash dumps sites where, if a spill were to occur, would likely lead to the deaths of nearby residents. Many found the DOH's argument that the knowledge of ash dump locations could be a threat to security was flimsy at best and downright suspicious at worst. link

 
In Europe, coal waste totals 100 million tons per year by some estimates. Similar figures aren't available for China, but since it is now burning more coal than the United States, the waste generation is significant. Scientists at the China Building Materials Academy and the Institute of Technical Information for Building Materials Industry calculate that their country has accumulated 2.5 billion tons of coal ash. link  
(Pictured: 
A truck dumps a load of ash from a coal-fired power plant in Shizuishan, in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of China.)

In August 2010, CBS broadcast a 60-Minute program on the coal ash issue, including a report on a golf course constructed in Virginia using 1.5 million tons of coal ash - read here  


The EPA position

January 2016: U.S. government to see if coal ash is a civil rights problemCoal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, is a major environmental problem. But disposal sites for coal ash are more likely to be located in and around low-income and minority communities, a fact that’s prompting a U.S. commission to look into whether coal ash is a civil rights problem, too. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a briefing Friday, January 22, to “shine a light on the civil rights implications of toxic coal ash, as well as other environmental conditions, on communities most in need of protection,” according to a statement released by Commission Chairman. link

December 2014: EPA will not declare coal ash a hazardous waste. The EPA issued its first ever regulations on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal for power. But to environmentalists’ chagrin, the agency declined to designate the substance as a hazardous waste. Instead, coal ash will be regulated similarly to household garbage. Environmentalists have long been pushing for a strong rule, but they were less than enthused about the direction EPA decided to take with it on Friday. “There is simply no excuse for EPA’s dangerously weak coal ash rule, which treats toxic waste loaded with carcinogens like household garbage,” Josh Nelson, campaign manager at CREDO Action, said in a statement. Under the new rule, all new coal ash pits must be lined. In addition, the hundreds of old, unlined pits must be immediately cleaned up, but only if they are found to be actively polluting groundwater, and only if they are attached to active power plants. That’s a problem for environmentalists, because hundreds of old, decrepit coal ash ponds are attached to coal plants that are no longer producing power. The EPA says it does not have legal authority to regulate those. link
[The amount of coal ash generated by the nation’s coal-fired electricity plants has grown from 118 million tons in 2001 to 136 million tons in 2008, according to the EPA’s latest figures. link]     

August 2013: EPA confirms coal ash contaminates water across country. As the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to regulate coal ash, the waste product of coal-burning power plants, it confirmed that ash is polluting local waters at 18 sites across the US.  The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) announced the EPA’s findings in a report that maintains there are at least 20 other locations where coal ash is contaminating local groundwater. In a statement, EIP Director Eric Schaeffer said, “EPA’s list of polluting coal ash dumps barely scratches the surface."   link     

Current coal ash legislation - S. 3512: Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2012

What toxins are in coal ash

December 2007: Radioactive danger. A series of studies concluded that the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant, a by-product from burning coal for electricity, carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. At issue is coal's content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or "whole," coal that they aren't a problem. But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels. Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and in turn, food. link

Physicians for Social Responsibility report that the waste material left after coal is burned contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals, many of them toxic. And disposal of the growing mounds of coal ash is creating grave risks to human health. Toxic constituents of coal ash are blowing, spilling and leaching (dissolving and percolating) from storage units into air, land and human drinking water, posing an acute risk of cancer and neurological effects as well as many other negative health impacts:  heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children. link

The following metals/compounds are all to be found in coal ash:
Uranium, Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Zinc, Copper, Tin, Strontium, Selenium, Nickel, Iron, Cobalt, Beryllium, Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminum, Sulfur, Potassium, Calcium, Vanadium, Chromium, Molybdenum, Manganese, Silver, Cadmium, Barium, Antimony, Radon, Radium and Thorium.

The Kingston Tennessee spill

December 2008:
Major spill in Tennessee. Initial reports that 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee gave way was revised to 5.4 million cubic yards, more than the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) said was in the pond. Environmentalists have long argued that coal ash, which can contaminate ground water and poison aquatic environments, should be stored in lined landfills.  link
(The TVA had dumped up to 1,000 tons of coal ash every day into a wet pond near the plant, slowly amassing a waste-cake 60 feet high. The spilled ash was transported to a dry landfill in Alabama.)

For decades, the dangers of coal ash have largely been hidden from public view. Today, there are 194 landfills and 161 ponds containing coal ash from 500 power plants in 47 states nationwide according to 2005 data from the Department of Energy, the latest available. Each year power companies generate approximately 130 million tons of coal ash - enough to fill a million railroad cars. Industry representatives estimate 43 percent of coal ash now gets recycled in such items as concrete or wallboard - two "beneficial uses" that use one type of coal ash. But that still leaves more than 70 million tons of ash annually for companies to dump in lagoons, landfills, and, more recently, mine pits. The ash amounts to dirty stuff, replete with toxic constituents - arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, and many others - that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health. Exposure to its toxins can lead to cancer, birth defects, gastro-intestinal illnesses, and reproductive problems. There is no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal - much of it stunningly casual - is largely left to the states. more

Clean-up. It could cost as much as $825 million to clean up a river and a rural neighborhood after a massive spill of coal ash sludge from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant, according to TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore. The 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge broke out of a containment pond on Dec. 22, 2008 flooding homes and pouring into a river inlet near the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. No one was hurt, but 300 acres were covered with up to 9 feet of grayish muck. The disaster brought national attention to coal ash containment ponds, which are located at more than 150 plants in 32 states, and the need for greater federal regulation. link  (As of December 2011, the TVA has spent $750 million of an expected $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion total cost for the cleanup - link)

December 2011: Coal ash still a huge problem, three years after spill. link

Buffalo Creek disaster 1972: One of the worst mining disasters in the US- coal waste from mining operations (similar to the coal combustion waste in ponds) was placed into the river, and then dammed. People lived in the narrow valley below the two dams where buffalo creek flowed. The dam burst after days of heavy rain killing 118 people, injuring 1,100 and leaving over 4,000 homeless. Pittson officials (the company that operated the mine) called the flood an "Act of God" and maintained that the dam was "incapable of holding the water God poured into it." Rev. Charles Crumm, a disabled miner from the Buffalo Creek area, testified before the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster, ". . . I never saw God drive the first slate truck in the holler. . . ." -- Pittston quote from Appalshop film, Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man and Crumm quote from Disaster on Buffalo Creek, 1972    link

Uses of coal ash

The American Coal Ash Association emphasize the commercial value of what they term as “coal combustion products” – or CCPs. Using fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag, the U.S. produced 131 million tons of coal combustion products, using 43 million tons while disposing of nearly 75 million tons.  Products are primarily cement and wallboard products.

In The uses of coal ash.1996 approximately 22% of the fly ash produced was used for construction purposes such as making cement and concrete products, structural fills and embankments, as a mineral filler in asphalt pavement, golf courses etc.
However, many environmental groups condemn fly ash recycling. Using coal ash as for construction are all practices that environmentalists say spread the risk to communities and the environment. In 2007, the EPA had tracked at least 70 cases where coal ash had caused fish kills, or tainted drinking water and land.  link  



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