By: Robert Miles, August 2013
WHAT IS COAL ASH
The most significant toxic byproduct of burning coal is coal ash. Coal ash is a blanket term for four residuals: fly ash – fine powdery particles that float up the smokestack and are captured by pollution control devices; bottom ash – heavier materials that descend to the bottom of the furnace; flue gas desulfurization – wet sludge or dry powder formed by chemically combining sulfur gases with a sorbent; boiler sag – crystallized pellets that result when molten slag and water in the furnace come in contact. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), coal ash typically contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, selenium, other assorted heavy metals and trace amounts of radionuclides such as uranium. The majority of heavy metals that are present in coal ash are among the most toxic heavy metals listed by the U.S. Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Arsenic in particular has been proven to cause cancer. Despite the known danger posed by coal ash waste, little to no government policy exists to regulate the disposal of coal ash. Due to the toxic nature of coal ash waste it continues to be a focus for multiple organizations to research the amount of coal ash being produced and the effect it is having on our air and water. Clean Water Action and Rainforest Action Network have recently published individual research reports on the information they gathered from coal ash research.
RECENT RESEARCH ON THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF COAL ASH
The very first survey of coal ash pollution in Colorado – Coal Ash: Colorado’s Toxic Trash Exposed – was published by Clean Water Action on June 26th 2013. “Clean Water Action’s research found that coal ash disposal is a serious threat to Colorado’s water resources,” said Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action. “Right here in Colorado, about 1.7 million tons of coal ash pollution is produced every year and safeguards are not in place to protect the environment or the public’s health.”
Some of the more startling statistics that Clean Water Action found include:
- In 2011, there were 13 coal-fired power plants in Colorado that produced about 1.7 million tons of coal ash.
- Each year nearly 1 million tons of coal ash is buried on-site in unlined or improperly lined landfills in Colorado that lack adequate downstream or down-gradient water quality monitoring programs.
- There are 16 on-site coal ash storage ponds in Colorado. At least nine of these ponds drain polluted water directly into nearby creeks and five of these ponds are unlined (in Denver at the Cherokee plant, and in Boulder at the Valmont plant). Threats to groundwater from these 16 ponds are unknown because Colorado has no minimum groundwater standard for coal ash ponds.
- Three coal plants in Colorado – Xcel’s Comanche, Cherokee and Valmont stations – discharge their coal ash wastewater into streams that are “impaired” for heavy metals.
- Thirty percent of coal ash in Colorado is sold or given away for “beneficial use” and used in building materials or for fill and landscaping projects, even though EPA has found this practice to be unsafe.
- The EPA has identified three coal ash landfills that have contaminated groundwater and Clean Water Action’s analysis of groundwater monitoring data indicates that an additional four landfills in Colorado have likely contaminated groundwater. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment does not adequately regulate coal ash.
Clean Water Action’s research also focused on the Valmont power plant in Boulder, which stores coal ash on-site in ponds and in landfills. The report found:
- About 80,000 tons of coal ash is generated at the Valmont power plant each year.
- Neither the landfill nor the coal ash pond at the Valmont plant are lined.
- Water from Valmont’s ash ponds is discharged into Boulder Creek, which is classified as “impaired” due to high levels of selenium.
- Groundwater monitoring wells near the Valmont plant showed levels of arsenic, cadmium, and selenium significantly above the EPA’s standards.
“The Valmont coal-fired power plant in Boulder is a major source of coal-ash pollution that potentially degrades local groundwater and Boulder Creek,” said Wockner. “Not only do we need to shut these dirty coal power plants down, we will have to better regulate coal ash that has and will continue to be stored on these sites for decades.”
Clean Water Action is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to better regulate coal ash in Colorado.
On July 2nd 2013 Rainforest Action Network (RAN) published a report stating that energy companies with hazardous coal ash waste disposal facilities could face $100 million in environmental remediation costs per site for contaminated water adjacent to power plants. The report, Dump Now, Pay Later: Coal Ash Disposal Risks Facing U.S. Electric Power Producers, uncovers the reality about how power companies have managed coal ash and the options for improved toxic coal ash waste management in the future. According to the study, power companies dump much of the 130 million tons of coal ash produced at U.S. coal-fired power plants each year into substandard waste disposal sites, including more than 2000 aging coal ash containment ponds and landfills across the country. “Electric power producers that dump toxic coal waste into poorly built ponds and landfills pose health threats to communities,” said Ben Collins, author of the report and research and policy campaigner at RAN. “New regulations and legal challenges will force companies to clean up these disposal sites and are likely to cost investors a bundle in the process.” The report ranks the top five companies with the most coal ash ponds that the Environmental Protection Agency classified as significant or high hazards in the event of a dam failure. The report continues to rank five electric companies based on their ownership of unlined ponds that are most likely to cause contamination of ground water, and includes four of the five named in the other list. It is also notable that electric power producers currently disclose very little information about either their ownership of waste disposal sites, or any plans to manage closures in the future. The report warns that if the companies fail to properly clean up the sites, investors will ultimately bear the costs of future clean up and legal battles.
COAL ASH WASTE MANAGEMENT
The EPA estimates that 140 million tons of coal ash is produced annually in the U.S. According to the EPA, toxic waste from coal combustion is the second largest industrial waste stream in the nation, exceeded only by mining waste. There is not a single federal regulation in place to protect the environment and society from potential contamination. Similar to hydraulic fracturing fluids exemption from the Clean Water Act, coal ash is exempt from the 1982 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). RCRA is the federal act that regulates the way hazardous and solid waste is managed. RCRA passes down the responsibility of regulating coal ash to individual states. The states have responded with policies that are weak at best or with no policies at all. As is often the case, the waste management method that poses the least danger to the environment is not the least expensive method available. Therefore the most environmentally safe method is rarely chosen. Until state governments step up and/or the federal government intervenes, energy companies will continue to cut corners when disposing of coal ash because cutting corners leads to greater profits for their individual companies. The environment and society are currently paying the price.
The majority of coal ash is managed by three primary methods: landfill disposal, temporary ash ponds, and beneficial uses. According to a June 2013 Clean Water Action report, detailing Colorado’s coal ash waste management data, landfill disposal is the most common disposal method of coal ash in Colorado. There are seven active on-site landfills that had more than one million of the state’s 1.7 million tons of coal ash introduced to the system in 2011. None of the seven landfills have proper safeguards in place. They are either unlined or have an insufficient compacted clay layer. Despite a lack of preventive contamination measures, Colorado’s coal ash landfills also lack leachate monitoring systems. Leachate monitoring systems detect the presence of contaminants down-gradient from waste sites early enough to try to prevent extensive ground water contamination. The EPA has identified three coal ash landfills that have contaminated groundwater and Clean Water Action’s analysis of groundwater monitoring indicates that an additional four landfills in Colorado have likely contaminated groundwater.
In addition to seven coal ash landfills, there are 16 coal ash storage ponds located at seven power plants across Colorado. In contrast with the majority of other states, all ash ponds in Colorado are intended for temporary storage as opposed to final disposal. Ash ponds are filled with bottom ash and excess water is left to evaporate or is pumped out. The remaining dry waste is then dredged and transported to an on-site landfill for final disposal. Colorado currently has five unlined ash storage ponds. Standards have never been set for the amount of heavy metals coal plants can discharge into surface water. An additional concern regarding ash ponds is that water from ash ponds is being discharged into rivers and streams. One example of such a discharge occurs at the unlined pond located at the Valmont power plant in Boulder, CO. Ash pond water is discharged into the Boulder Creek which is classified as “impaired” due to high levels of heavy metals. Mercury and arsenic, considered the two most harmful heavy metals found in coal ash, present devastating consequences even in small amounts. Arsenic and mercury do not degrade overtime and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. Monitoring of ash storage ponds is even less stringent than ash landfills. An EPA study suggests that people who live near a coal ash pond have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water, more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable.
The third method of managing coal as is by “beneficial” use. According to the EPA, beneficial use refers to the use of material that provides a functional benefit — that is, where the use replaces the use of an alternative material or conserves natural resources that would otherwise be obtained through extraction or other processes to obtain virgin materials. The EPA has come under scrutiny for promoting the use of coal ash with incomplete risk information and not adhering to accepted and standard practices in determining the safety of the 15 categories of beneficial use it has promoted. The most common reuses of coal ash are in concrete, Portland cement, and base for road construction (encapsulated) and structural fills and site maintenance (unencapsulated). According to the EPA, approximately 37% (50 million tons) of total produced coal ash is used for beneficial uses. The EPA claims that the great bulk of beneficial uses, particularly in an encapsulated form, as in concrete and wallboard, do not raise concerns and offer important environmental benefits. In 2011 the Inspector General published an evaluation report titled, “EPA Promoted The Use Of Coal Ash Products With Incomplete Risk Information”. The agency, the IG wrote, had collaborated with industry to support the practice of coal ash reuse, despite the lack of data about the potential risks. The potential recycling of coal ash is not a small industry, reportedly generating $5 to $10 billion annually for coal-burning utilities.
EXTREME INSTANCES OF DIRECT CONTAMINATION
Since 2002 multiple holding dams at coal ash ponds have ruptured without warning, often leading to a devastating introduction of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the environment. One of the most catastrophic dam failures occurred at a Tennessee Valley Authority ash pond. On December 22, 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash sludge broke through a dike at an ash pond associated with the Kingston coal-fired power plant. The dam failure resulted in more than 400 acres of land and waterways being contaminated with an estimated one billion gallons of toxic ash, and in some areas the ash slurry was as deep as six feet. Although catastrophic contamination such as the Tennessee ash spill receive national media attention, toxic contaminants continue to seep from coal ash dumps into groundwater supplies nationwide. EPA data indicates that at least 535 coal ash ponds operate without a simple liner to modestly prevent toxic chemicals and metals from seeping into drinking water sources. In 2010, as a response to the Tennessee Valley disaster, the EPA proposed a rule to address coal ash disposal. However, as of early 2013 no rules have been finalized.
Coal has been the backbone of the U.S. electricity and energy market since commercial coal mines began operation in the 1740s. Coal is without a doubt an abundant domestic resource. Unfortunately, the combustion of coal not only releases pollutants directly into the atmosphere but also leaves behind an assortment of coal residuals, coal ash. As the data has shown coal ash is a toxic material that needs to be treated as such. The U.S. government and its collective agencies have been disengaged from the process of monitoring how coal ash is managed. It is not until catastrophic events occur, such as the Tennessee Valley spill in 2008, that the government begins talking about alternative management solutions. The fact remains that nearly five years later very little progress has been made to prevent another large-scale contamination. There have been recent discussions amongst government agencies and committees about whether state or federal government should be responsible for monitoring coal ash. It is time to stop passing the buck and start making changes. If the government is not going to enact policies that lead the U.S. toward an energy future free of fossil fuels, the least they can do is craft policy to protect society and the environment from contamination as a result of fossil fuel processes. Clean coal is a dirty lie.
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Lombardi, Kristen. “”Beneficial Use” of Coal Ash in Question as EPA Mulls Regulation.”The Center for Public Integrity. N.p., 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 10 July 2013.
Cousins, Farron. “Coal Ash Ponds Contaminating Groundwater In Tennessee.”DeSmogBlog. N.p., 25 July 2011. Web. 11 July 2013.
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