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