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Climate Change and Renewable Energy: Saving Our Planet for Future Generations

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Coal Ash: Its Environmental Impact

Map of coal ash spills and contaminated sites by Earthjustice.

Map of coal ash spills and contaminated sites by Earthjustice.

By Lin Smith

August 30, 2013–When we combust coal to make electricity, it leaves coal byproducts in the power plants burners called coal ash. Coal ash makes up the ash left at the bottom of the burners,  plus the fly ash, the ash that flies up the smokestack. In the past, fly ash was released into the atmosphere but environmental laws have been passed in recent years which require coal power plants to capture the ash, reducing pollution in our atmosphere. Since the fly ash is toxic to our atmosphere, these laws require 99% of the ash (also called recycled air pollution control residue) produced in power plants, be stored, recycled, or disposed of in some manner.

The toxicity level of coal ash depends on where the coal is mined and the layer of rock directly above it. Some elements of coal are consistent, but coal may also have traces of mercury, cadmion, lead, radium, arsenic, dioxins, and several other heavy metals and toxins which have been related to cancer and other health concerns. Along with the tons of CO2 produced by the coal burning plants every year from the direct burning of the coal, the coal burning power plants produce approximately 130 million tons of coal ash yearly from over 400 coal plants in the U.S.

Who currently regulates coal ash? Here’s where politics come in to play. Even though the federal government has regulated the emission of fly ash into our atmosphere, it has not regulated the disposal of the fly ash. Coal ash is being dumped in landfills, abandoned mines, and in lined or unlined holding ponds near the power plants. Only about 40% of the fly ash is recycled, mainly for uses in construction. Ruptures of coal ash holding ponds and retention walls have caused contamination of groundwater and soil in the U.S., leaching toxic heavy metals into the groundwater in at least 38 locations identified by the EPA. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 2013:

“The EPA has confirmed 38 sites nationwide where coal waste has a documented history of leaching dangerous levels of chemicals into water. The review was part of an EPA effort to assess its own proposal for new limits on the liquid waste that power plants can dump.”

States have had few rules and regulations monitoring the storage of coal ash, with zero federal involvement. Currently, there are proposals to regulate coal ash, but not as a hazardous waste. states:

“Coal combustion residuals, or coal ash, are currently considered exempt wastes under an amendment to the Resouce Conservation and Recovery Act…….Potential environmental concerns from coal ash pertain to pollution from impoundment and landfills leaching into ground water and structual failures of impoundments.  Under the new proposal, the EPA would regulate coal ash under a section for non-hazardous waste.”

In July 2013, the U.S. House passed a bill, HR-2218, which would give each state control over how coal ash is managed and disposed of, prohibiting the EPA from labeling it “hazardous.” If coal ash was labeled “hazardous” it could no longer be recycled and used in concrete, roofing materials, and bricks. Republicans argue designating it “hazardous” would kill jobs while driving up construction and other costs. Democrats disapprove of the “non-hazardous” label stating the bill would lead to environmental abuses and health problems. Rep. Henry A Waxman, has stated:

“This debate is about whether or not we are going to allow coal ash disposal sites to contaminate our water supplies and threaten human health.”

The White House has proposed that the EPA be allowed to set standards to “identify and remedy problems with state programs.” The bill is not expected to pass the Senate. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, stated:

“I will oppose this bill at every turn because, if it becomes law, coal ash would continue to pose a grave threat to public health and safety.”

Lawmakers from coal mining states say that if coal ash is listed as a hazard it would raise electricity bills and require states to fund costly clean-up of current practices—dumping coal ash in abandoned mines and holding tanks that leak into our environment. The EPA is asking for public comment on addressing the risks of coal ash management. A chart of their proposals is available online at

“The EPA is not proposing to regulate the beneficial use of CCRs (coal combustion residues.) However, the EPA has identified concerns with some uses of CCRs in unencapsulated form, such as the use in road embankments and agricultural applications in the event proper practices are not employed. While the EPA does not want to negatively impact the legitimate beneficial uses , we are also aware of the need to fully consider the risks of current practices.”

The debate over coal ash management and regulation is ongoing. Hopefully, the day will come when renewables will take the place of fossil fuels and the discussion of where to dump toxic coal byproducts will be a thing of the past.