Is Coal Ash Toxic?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Is coal ash toxic? It sure seems that way:
The billion-gallon wave of toxic coal-ash sludge that burst from a power-plant retention pond and buried 300 acres of rural Tennessee hints at a far larger problem: hundreds of similar threats nationwide.

More than 1,300 coal-ash waste sites are dotted across the United States, about half of them actively used, federal data show. Some are landfills. The rest are “surface impoundments” (storage lagoons), which, like the one in Tennessee, mix ash with water.

Coal ash has some beneficial uses. It can be mixed with concrete to make roads, for example. But storing coal ash in a retention pond – common at coal-fired power plants nationwide – can be a threat to the environment and humans as well: The ash contains many toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, and chromium.

At least 67 coal-ash sites have been found to be damaging drinking-water supplies in communities across 23 states, the US Environmental Protection Agency reported last year. But those EPA-identified sites grossly understate the threat, environmentalists say.
So, if coal ash is toxic and dangerous, why have Virginia's two Democratic U.S. Senators signed a letter to President Obama "opposing re-classification of coal ash as hazardous waste?" I contacted their offices for comment and so far (5:21 pm, Monday) have heard back from Warner:
To quote from the letter: “In 2000 … the Clinton administration determined that coal ash should not be managed as a hazardous substance. Nearly a decade later, there is tremendous support for adhering to that determination… Last year, approx. 45 percent of the coal combustion products produced by utilities was recycled through a wide range of industrial, manufacturing and agricultural applications. A de facto moratorium on recycling would require utilities to build additional facilities to manage the increased volume of ash. This would dramatically increase power plants’ operating costs, which would be passed on to customers.”