The hazards of nonhazardous coal ash


The morning of December 22, 2008, is etched into my journalistic memory. I was visiting my family back East and, with little to do other than surf the Interwebs, I had decided to join a new microblogging site called Twitter. I started following a number of environmental journalists and soon noticed that my feed was jammed with a specific search term, known in the Twitterverse as a hashtag. The term was #coalash.

I had not thought much about coal ash before. But as it turns out, just minutes after I began my tweeting adventures as @spogburn, 300 million gallons of this coal-fired power plant waste -- a slurry of stuff that Clean Air Act regulations make power plants filter out because it’s dangerous to human health -- had spilled into the Emory River from the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, Tenn.

The Kingston spill devastated everything it sludged. As I quickly learned that day, coal ash contains concentrated amounts of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and thallium, among other metals. Emory River water downstream of the spill was found to have elevated amounts of lead and thallium, both of which can cause birth defects and nervous system disorders. Tennessee residents were warned against eating fish from the river, since they may absorb the toxins.

Yet the Environmental Protection Agency, which has the official last word on such things, hadn’t considered coal ash a hazardous waste.

But public outcry over the spill, which is likely to total an estimated $1.2 billion when the clean up is final, led the EPA to reconsider. In 2010 the agency announced its plans to regulate the stuff under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which gives EPA authority to control how hazardous and non-hazardous wastes are managed, from creation to disposal. The agency's proposed rule contained two options. One would categorize coal ash as hazardous, meaning that coal plants would be required to store the waste in lined, dry facilities, and waste ponds like the one that spilled in Tennessee would be phased out. The other would regulate it more lightly. It would not be considered hazardous and control would mostly be left up to states. The EPA took public comment on those options last year.

On Oct. 14, though, even as the EPA prepares the final version of its rule, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives pushed through a law that would usurp EPA authority to designate coal ash as hazardous and leave regulations up to the states. (Ken Ward Jr., an environment reporter in West Virginia, has reported substantially on coal ash, including the problems with state control of the waste) Congressman David McKinley, R-WV, took up the arsenic-rich byproduct's case in the political newspaper The Hill, in an incredulously-titled opinion piece, called "Congress should vote to protect renewable coal ash."

McKinley's claim that coal ash is renewable comes from the fact that it is recycled into building products like cement bricks and wallboard. Industry argues if the waste is classified as hazardous they won't be able to incorporate it into such products. But, as the Knoxville News noted in an op-ed, the waste can still be used in these materials under both proposed EPA options, hazardous or not.

Since few bills -- especially extreme ones -- ever make it through the Senate, it seems unlikely that this one will. But who knows. One thing we do know is that there is a lot of coal ash and it definitely makes a mess. As the Washington Post reports:

"A federal survey conducted after the spill found the toxic leftovers of burning coal for power at nearly 600 sites in 35 states. Spills have occurred at 34 of those sites over the past decade, the agency said. Without federal guidelines, regulations of the ash disposal vary by state. Most sites lack liners and have no monitors to ensure that ash and its contents don’t seep into underground aquifers."


Stephanie Paige Ogburn is High Country News' online editor.

Image courtesy Flickr user SkyTruth

John Ward
John Ward
Oct 24, 2011 10:51 AM
The bill that passed the House was not "Republicans" out to "usurp EPA authority." The bill was bipartisan, attracting 37 Democrat votes, and actually would result in enforceable coal ash disposal regulations being enacted years EARLIER than the current EPA schedule could accomplish. Furthermore, the proposed regulations being considered by EPA are not “more stringent” than the regulations established by the bill. They contain the same landfill engineering standards. The only difference is that EPA wants direct enforcement authority and the only way they can get it is through an unwarranted “hazardous waste” designation that is opposed by everyone other than anti-coal environmental activists and companies that compete with recycled coal ash.

The most important reason for Congress to create enforceable coal ash disposal regulations led by the states is this: Coal ash recycling is already being harmed by an EPA rulemaking process that has dragged on for three years and has no end in sight. Coal ash disposal problems can and should be solved without going to the extreme of designating coal ash a "hazardous waste." The best solution for coal ash disposal problems is to quit throwing coal ash away. Millions of tons of coal ash are safely recycled every year into construction materials like concrete and wallboard. That environmentally beneficial practice is threatened by environmental groups and newspaper stories irresponsibly labeling coal ash as "toxic" and the EPA dragging its heels in finishing its regulations. In truth, coal ash is no more toxic than the manufactured materials it replaces. Citizens for Recycling First can help you learn more.
Jeremy Miller
Jeremy Miller Subscriber
Oct 24, 2011 09:13 PM
This is a response to Mr. Ward, who failed to disclose in the previous post that he is, in fact, the chairman of the group Citizens for Recycling First. Just a question before I delve too deeply into your group's materials. Does your position as "former board member and past president of the American Coal Council" in any way constitute a conflict of interest or compromise your outlook on the classification of coal ash and the best practices for its disposal? After reading the group's mission statement -- "supporting coal ash recycling as a safe and environmentally preferable alternative to disposal" and "assertively challenging misleading news media characterizations of coal ash" -- I'd like to pose another question. How many "citizens" -- that is, citizens unaffiliated with the coal industry -- comprise "Citizens for Recycling First"? Ballpark is fine. (Full disclosure, I have written for this publication on cement production and the use of coal ash disposal as part of the cement manufacturing process. Mr. Ward's assertion that coal ash is not hazardous is semantic. The EPA classifies coal ash as an "exempt" waste, a designation earned by way of a special amendment to RCRA, the law governing the disposal of solid and hazardous wastes. The "non-hazardous" label used by Ward and other industry representatives is misleading since coal ash often contains a myriad of EPA-regulated hazardous substances such as arsenic, selenium and other heavy metals that can leach out.) While on its face recycling may seem to be "environmentally beneficial" and preferable to mass disposal in landfills (see: the verdict is still out on the long-term "safety" of incorporating coal ash in building materials such as drywall (see:[…]/main5752469.shtml)
Joan Bartz
Joan Bartz Subscriber
Oct 25, 2011 03:18 PM
I am extremely concerned about this bill recently passed by the House. It is wrong-minded to think that coal ash should be regulated (or not) at the state level. I first became aware of the proposed bill after reading that the Representative from my parents district in Ohio had been involved in introducing this bill. I wrote the following "letter to the editor": "In response to article “Latta Bill Opposes EPA Coal Ash Regulation”
Once again, a Republican describes an effort by the EPA to regulate a true and proven health hazard to be about economic growth: (In article of April 6, Latta noted. “In this economy, we cannot afford to lose any more jobs in Ohio or the United States. We need to get Washington out of the way of economic growth by tearing down barriers to energy independence and job creation.”)
In the past, EPA relied on the states to regulate coal ash. A catastrophic event in 2008 demonstrated that this was insufficient, and as a result led to the EPA making a decision that was different (that is, contradicted) its previous findings and decisions. That’s what happens when new information and data come to light! A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee occurred when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, west of Knoxville, failed. This sent a flood of ash overland - destroying homes, fouling land, and contaminating water. The contaminants of coal ash include heavy metals (such as arsenic, selenium, lead and, mercury) and other carcinogens.
These constituents are best regulated as hazardous waste. If the concentration of heavy metals and other carcinogens are lower than a certain amount, the coal ash will not be considered hazardous waste and will not require management as a hazardous waste. But, if the concentrations are higher than that threshold, the coal ash will be managed as hazardous waste. This protective management would be to the benefit of human health and the environment.
Anyone who saw the air above the Ford Rouge Plant in Michigan or breathed the air in that vicinity before regulation of emissions by EPA would realize that situations that damage human health and the environmental need to be curtailed or eliminated. The only way this happens is for the EPA to regulate the situation. At the Rouge Plant, it could be argued that this was not in the interest of economic growth, but certainly the benefit in human health, such as reduced medical problems and lives extended, had a value that outweighed the “economic growth” argument.
As for recycling, there are other instances where the material recycled contained hazardous components and should have been managed as hazardous waste. One infamous example is micronutrient fertilizer manufactured from industrial by-products. Another is the Marine Shale incident in which material that was hazardous waste was added to paving material. So, just because someone says they are recycling a material does not make that recycling beneficial.
So, Representative Latta, please allow the EPA to do its job and protect us and our air, land, and water. I don’t want to be among the taxpayers on the hook for cleanup of another coal ash spill. If other taxpayers support this view, please let Representative Latta know."
This may not be much of an issue for us in Washington, except that, as taxpayers, we Washington citizens will be on-the-hook to pay for clean up of spills and medical costs for those who are made sick by coal ash.
I support what Jeremy Miller has written above. And I hope that Stephanie Ogburn is correct in thinking that this bill is too extreme to make it through the Senate. I believe that the EPA should be able to write appropriate rules for coal ash...perhaps even remove the exemption and allow it to be regulated based upon its chemical composition.