Industry Seeks ‘Beneficial’ Uses of the Toxic Sludge Produced by Coal-Burning Power Plants
Coal company executives, the people behind catastrophes such as the 2014 spill near Eden, N.C., that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with liquefied coal ash, want to promote “beneficial use” of the toxic material such as fill at construction sites and spreading it on icy roads to make them less slippery.
Thomas Adams, the executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, couches the industry arguments for using coal ash in environmental terms.
“From an environmental standpoint, there’s a benefit to not sending material to disposal,” Adams said.
Coal companies can also dodge stricter regulation of coal ash under a 2015 rule by having it spread on roads and used at constructions sites instead of sending it to landfills. Coal ash can be spread as fill dirt anywhere in our country.
Thirteen public health and environmental groups wrote EPA administrator Scott Pruitt asking him not to restart an EPA program to promote using coal ash. The ash left over from burning coal to produce electricity contain arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead and mercury that can leach into groundwater.
“The EPA has documented pollution at many sites where coal ash was used as fill, and that’s not acceptable,” said Earthjustice Senior Counsel Lisa Evans. “The EPA needs to determine where this pollution is threatening public health before promoting increased use.”
An EPA spokesperson said the agency has not decided to revive the program to promote using coal ash, known as the Coal Combustion Products Partnership.
“The agency appreciates working with stakeholders on the responsible beneficial use of CCR, as well as other non-hazardous industrial secondary materials,” the spokesperson said.
The partnership was shut down in 2010. The Inspector General determined the EPA didn’t use standard practices to evaluate the safety of “beneficial uses” of coal ash and instead relied on state programs to review coal ash use and manage its risks. About 6.7 million tons of coal ash was used as structural fill or embankments in 2014.
The EPA has classified at least 22 fill sites as “confirmed damage” cases with pollutants above regulatory standards and/or damage to health or the environment documented in scientific studies or administrative or court rulings.
In Pines, Ind., wells were contaminated with boron and molybdenum that apparently came from coal ash in a nearby landfill. Coal ash was also in residential yards where it had been used as fill material. The area is now a Superfund site.
The EPA has also documented water contamination from coal ash used as fill in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The environmental groups want the EPA to evaluate known sites where coal ash was used to identify health and environmental impacts and determine if action should be taken to protect public health and the environment.
The EPA spokesperson said the agency has fully addressed the concerns raised by the Inspector General report.
Featured Photo: Cleaning up after the 2014 Dan River coal-ash spill in North Carolina. Photo by Steven Alexander U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.