Planet Earth Weekly

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.


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wast managemet sweeden

By Lin Smith

August 11, 2013–Sweden, a country of 9 million people, is one of our planet’s leaders in creating a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their goal is to achieve a completely oil free economy by 2020, replacing fossil fuels with renewable alternatives before “climate change undermines national economies worldwide and diminishing oil supplies force astronomical price increases.” Their renewable alternative–turning trash into power! Although at the present time Sweden relies on other forms of energy, burning of garbage accounts for an equivalent of 810,000 homes being heated and the electrical equivalent of 250,000 homes being powered. The waste to energy plants are burning garbage faster than Swedes can produce it, so their solution? Import garbage from Norway!

Sweden sends just 1% of its residential solid waste to the landfill, recycling 50% and thermally processing 49% for heat and power generation in their WTE plants (waste to energy). Charlotta Broman, from the Ministry of the Environment in Sweden, states, “Sweden has a waste program that focuses on waste as both a resource and an environmental problem…We believe it is necessary to look at the properties of the waste. Recycling and recovery should be used for toxic-free materials only. Waste containing hazardous substances should be phased out …or be treated in environmentally sound ways. A lack of information on chemicals in products is an obstacle to achieving resource efficiency through recycling.”

Sweden (and all of Europe) has a classification hierarchy for waste management starting with the most favoured option to the least favoured option: 1.prevention of waste, 2.minimization of waste, 3.reuse of waste, 4.recycle, and the very last option, 5.dispose in landfills. A more aggressive approach to this hierarchy was drafted in March 2013 by the Zero Waste International Alliance. This Alliance, in which Europe is a part, contracted the following hierarchy for waste (best to least): 1.Reduce and conserve materials, 2. Shift incentives to stop wasting (by policies and regulations), 3.Manufacturers will design products for sustainability (don’t allow toxic wastes into consumer products or building materials), 4.Reuse, 5.Recycle, and last again, 6.Regulate disposal. Europeans want to “extract the maximum practical benefits from products and generate the minimum amount of waste” by setting standards that allow everyone to take part in the waste management planning, at the national, state, and local levels, spreading the responsibility to all. The Swedish EPA continues to “fine-tune the rules for different types of waste management, as well as produce guidance for management.”

As in Sweden, landfills for the rest of us should be the final step in the heirarchy of getting rid of garbage, as they are toxic to our environment, poisoning our atmosphere and groundwater. Landfills are sealed in the ground to keep out air and water, decomposing slowly by anaerobic bacteria, an organism that doesn’t require oxygen for growth. Once the landfill is full it is sealed. These seals can not only leak but they also release methane gas, which along with wastewater treatment gases, make up about 2.3 percent of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Most landfills are not designed to decompose the garbage, only to bury it. If they were designed to decompose garbage more methane would be released into our atmosphere. According to Wikepedia, “the unclear nature of the contents of the garbage in the landfill makes its gas production difficult to predict and control….due to the continual production of landfill gas, the increase in pressure causes the gases to be released into the atmosphere…which risks fire and explosion if not released.” The gas composition from a landfill is 40-60% methane, the rest consists mostly of carbon dioxide. With more than 6,000 landfills in the U.S., the EPA has estimated garbage in our landfills contributes 650 billion cubic feet of methane per year to our atmosphere which has a large impact on our changing climate. Methane is considered 20 times more toxic to our atmosphere than CO2.

Why haven’t other countries done more to move in the direction of Sweden? We create more than 390 million tons of garbage per year in the U.S.alone. Only .3% of power in the U.S. is generated by recycled garbage, which comes mostly from manufacturers not from households. Americans have had the “not in my back yard” reaction to burning recycled waste. Len Rosen states,”you would think that with all the waste humans produce, that incineration would be a preferred method of managing garbage but that is not the case. Why? Because of concern over release of toxins in the atmosphere from burning. The amount of ash, heavy metals, dioxin, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, carbon dioide and other trace gases that burning undifferentiated garbage can produce. These byproducts of incineration are linked to climate change, acid rain, and human illness.”

But Sweden remains innovative in solving their problems of waste management. With the support of their population, recycling has become a way of life. Not accepting the haul-everything-to-the-dump attitude, they have adopted a workable solution and the most ecofriendly method on our planet. So how is Sweden handling the byproducts of incineration? “The country’s incinerators have been designed to collect the pollutants that are the byproducts of burning waste. Only the heavy metals are collected and buried in landfills. Gases going up the smokestack are scrubbed to remove dangerous chemicals, and sulphur dioxide gets converted to sulphuric acid for commercial resale. Ash is collected and exported back to Norway, where it gets used for roads and building materials. The goal is to make incineration a green energy source and Sweden is well on its way!” states Rosen.

According to the EPA, “for every ton of garbage processed at a WTE (waste to energy) facility, approximately one ton of emitted carbon-dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere is prevented. This is because the trash burned at the facility doesn’t generate methane, as it would at a landfill.” The electricity generated offsets the greenhouse gases that would be generated from coal and natural gas plants. Some landfills are trying different methods to “trap” methane and turn it in to energy, which can reduce gas emissions, but these trapped gases still generate significant emissions. According to the EPA, these plants are still releasing methane, with approximately 34% of the methane “trapped” for energy, 38% is flared, or burned, and 28% is released into the atmosphere. A 2012 report by the EPA states, ” Most of the existing data that is available to evaluate emission from landfills is based on flux box data. These measurements do not account for the majority of losses found at landfills…there is a need to better quanitify landfill gas collection efficiency.”

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle and know where your garbage goes!