|This article is part of the Global Energy Monitor coverage of the Tennessee sludge spill|
Fly ash is one kind of waste produced by coal-fired power plants. Pollution control equipment used in coal combustion captures fly ash from the chimneys of coal plants. Fly ash and bottom ash, which is removed from the base of coal furnaces, are often referred to simply as coal ash. Power station owners and industry groups promoting the use of coal waste in products such as building and other materials prefer to use the umbrella term "Coal Combustion Products" (CCPs) to describe the waste. Some regulators, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have also adopted the industry terminology.
One company promoting the use of coal waste in building and other products estimates that the world's 2,300 coal-fired power station fleet create approximately 1 billion tonnes of new fly ash each year. Vecor Australia summarises the impacts of dealing with this huge volume of waste as the coal power industry having to carry disposal fees and the costs of maintenance of impoundments, that it "restricts growth" and the sector suffers "negative PR".
The federal government regulates coal ash ponds only through their permits to release wastewater into public rivers or streams. Any further regulation is left up to states.
Coal ash overview
The 1.05 billion tons of coal burned each year in the United States contain 109 tons of mercury, 7884 tons of arsenic, 1167 tons of beryllium, 750 tons of cadmium, 8810 tons of chromium, 9339 tons of nickel, and 2587 tons of selenium. On top of emitting 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, coal-fired power plants in the United States also create 120 million tons of toxic waste. That means each of the nation's 500 coal-fired power plants produces an average 240,000 tons of toxic waste each year. A power plant that operates for 40 years will leave behind 9.6 million tons of toxic waste. This coal combustion waste (CCW) constitutes the nation's second largest waste stream after municipal solid waste.
When coal is burned, toxins in the coal are released into the smokestack. With modern air pollution controls, airborne toxins are captured through filtration systems before they can become airborne, and contained in a fine ash called coal ash, fly ash, or coal combustion waste. As a result, heavy metals such as mercury are concentrated in what the EPA considers "recycled air pollution control residue."
Coal ash contains large quantities of toxic metals, including 44 tons of mercury, 4601 tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium. In 2006, coal plants in the United States produced almost 72 million tons of fly ash, up 50 percent since 1993.
Most often coal waste is disposed of in landfills or "surface impoundments," which are lined with compacted clay soil, a plastic sheet, or both. As rain filters through the toxic ash pits year after year, the toxic metals are leached out and pushed downward by gravity towards the lining and the soil below. An EPA study found that all liners eventually degrade, crack or tear, meaning that all landfills eventually leak and release their toxins into the local environment. In a best case scenario, the EPA study determined that a 10-acre landfill would leak 0.2 to 10 gallons per day, or between 730 and 36,500 gallons over a ten-year period, an amount guaranteed to infiltrate the drinking water supply.
Coal ash and plant closures
More than 100 U.S. coal plants have been proposed for retirement since 2010, yet many states have no laws requiring the safe closure, cleanup, or monitoring of the coal ash landfills at the plants, and there are no federal regulations for their management.
2011 report on hexavalent chromium
The 2011 report, "EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash: Coal ash may be the secret source of cancer-causing chromium in your drinking water", suggests the EPA establish tests and regulations for hexavalent chromium in coal ash, as the EPA’s latest 2009 report on the hazardous contaminants in coal ash found that:
- Coal ash leaches chromium in amounts that can greatly exceed EPA’s threshold for hazardous waste at 5000 parts per billion (ppb); and
- The chromium that leaches from coal ash is “nearly 100 percent [hexavalent] Cr(VI),” a known highly toxic carcinogen.
2011 report on inadequate regulation
The 2011 report, "State of Failure: How States Fail to Protect Our Health and Drinking Water from Toxic Coal Ash" by Earthjustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, looked at EPA data and found that state regulations are often inadequate for protecting public health:
- There are currently over 700 coal ash dams, many of which operate without adequate lining and no water quality monitoring, and have been operating in some instances for decades.
- Only 3 states require composite liners for all new coal ash ponds;
- Only 5 states require composite liners for all new coal ash landfills;
- Only 2 states require groundwater monitoring of all coal ash ponds;
- Only 4 states require groundwater monitoring of all coal ash landfills;
- Only 6 states prohibit siting of coal ash ponds into the water table;
- Only 17 states require regulatory inspections of the structural integrity of coal ash ponds.
2011 report on coal ash regulation and jobs
The 2011 report, "Employment effects of coal ash regulation" by economist Frank Ackerman estimated that federal coal ash regulations would create nearly 30,000 jobs: "Using [the] industry estimate for the cost of regulation and the well-known IMPLAN model of the U.S. economy, I show that the effect of the new spending required by strict regulation of coal ash, including expenditures for waste management, wastewater treatment, and construction and operation of facilities and equipment, combined with the impact of the resulting electricity rate increases on consumers, would be a net gain of 28,000 jobs."
Accidents and contamination
Virginia residents file $1 billion suit against Dominion over fly ash site
In March 2009, attorneys representing almost 400 residents who live near Battlefield Golf Club in Virginia filed a lawsuit in Chesapeake Circuit Court, seeking over $1 billion in damages. The suit claims that Dominion Virginia Power sent fly ash to the site, ignoring a consultant's determination that the ash would leach harmful elements into the local drinking water supply. The lawsuit names as defendants Dominion, course developer CPM Virginia LLC, and VFL Technology Corp., Dominion's coal-ash management consultant. The suit accuses the companies of committing conspiracy and fraud, battery, negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and the creation of a nuisance. The resident's attorneys are demanding the removal of all fly ash from the site; the cleaning of the aquifer and installation of public water and sewer service; compensation for personal injury and decreased property values; and the creation of a fund for treatment costs and health monitoring.
On July 13, 2011, a Virginia judge dismissed portions of a lawsuit brought by homeowners near the golf course. 
4,000 gallons of sludge spill in Maryland
In March 2009, a 4,000-gallon spill of coal ash sludge spilled in Luke, Maryland, but did not seem to have reached the Potomac River. Most of the sludge spilled onto the West Virginia river bank, about 210 miles upstream from Washington, D.C. The sludge caused some discoloration of the river, but there were no signs of harm to fish or drinking water supplies. NewPage Corp., a paper manufacturer that owns the ash pipeline, had five days to tell the Maryland Department of the Environment how it would prevent future spills. The agency may fine the company.
Coal ash pile in Orange County, FL may be leaking radioactivity
The Florida EPA is expected to ask the Orlando Utilities Commission to investigate the ash pile from its coal plant in eastern Orange County in early 2009. Officials believe the landfill is leaking radioactivity into a shallow underground aquifer. If the uranium and radium found in the coal combustion waste is causing elevated radioactivity in groundwater, it would be a sign that the liner is failing. Authorities say there is no immediate threat to local residents. The ash pile is 70-feet tall and holds several million tons of coal waste.
Coal waste spill at TVA's Widows Creek plant in Alabama
On January 9, 2009, Tennessee Valley Authority confirmed another coal waste spill at its Widows Creek plant in northeast Alabama, less than three weeks after the enormous Tennessee coal ash spill at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill, which TVA said originated from a gypsum treatment operation, released about 10,000 gallons of toxic gypsum material, some of which spilled into Widows Creek and the nearby Tennessee River.
Gypsum ponds contain limestone spray from smokestack scrubbers, which trap sulfur dioxide emissions before they are released into the air and turn them into sludge and solid waste. According to a TVA statement, the spill occurred at 6 AM when a cap dislodged from a 30-inch standpipe, releasing material from the gypsum pond into a settling pond, which then reached capacity and overflowed.
On December 22, 2008, a retention pond wall collapsed at TVA's Kingston plant in Harriman, TN, releasing a combination of water and fly ash that flooded 12 homes, spilled into nearby Watts Bar Lake, contaminated the Emory River, and caused a train wreck. Officials said 4 to 6 feet of material escaped from the pond to cover an estimated 400 acres of adjacent land. A train bringing coal to the plant became stuck when it was unable to stop before reaching the flooded tracks. Hundreds of fish were floating dead downstream from the plant. Water tests showed elevated levels of lead and thallium.
Originally TVA estimated that 1.7 million cubic yards of waste had burst through the storage facility. Company officials said the pond had contained a total of about 2.6 million cubic yards of sludge. However, the company revised its estimates on December 26, when it released an aerial survey showing that 5.4 million cubic yards (1.09 billion gallons) of fly ash was released from the storage facility. Several days later, the estimate was increased to over 1 billion gallons spilled.
The TVA spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which released 10.9 million gallons of crude oil. Cleanup was expected to take weeks and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Drinking water contamination in Maryland
In November 2007, a group of Gambrills, Maryland residents living near a former sand and gravel mine filed a class action lawsuit against Constellation Energy over contamination of their drinking water. For twelve years prior, Constellation had dumped billions of tons of waste ash from its Brandone Shores coal-fired power plant into an unlined mine pit. County tests found that 23 wells in the area had been contaminated with metals such as arsenic, cadmium and thallium, all components fly ash.
In October 2008, the group reached a settlement with Constellation. Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance approved the estimated $54 million settlement in December 2008. The settlement requires that Constellation connect 84 households to public water, create two trust funds to compensate affected property owners, restore the former quarry site, and cease all future deliveries of coal ash to the site.
Ravena, NY, citizens meet to hear results of mercury survey
About 100 local citizens of Ravena, New York, attended a meeting on January 6, 2011, at the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School to hear Michael Bank of the Harvard School of Public Health discuss the results of a study based on testing of mercury levels in 172 people. According to Bank, nearly one person in 10 of those tested had blood levels high enough to warrant a visit to their doctor. The study found that fish consumption was not the source of the mercury. Local citizens have organized Community Advocates for Safe Emissions to push for tougher controls on mercury pollution from the Lafarge cement plant, which uses coal fly ash from power plants and fires its kilns with coal. The plant is New York state's second-largest emitter of mercury.
Massey Coal spill in Martin County, Kentucky
On October 11, 2000, 250 million gallons of coal-mining sludge burst through the bottom of Massey Coal's 72-acre, 2.2-billion-gallon waste lagoon into Coldwater Creek in eastern Kentucky. The sludge smashed through concrete seals the company had built to contain a spill, then burst out two mine entries and into nearby creeks. The spill swamped lawns along the six miles of the Coldwater Creek, coated the banks and bottom of Coldwater and neighboring Wolf Creek to thicknesses of up to six feet, and suffocated aquatic life, including salamanders, frogs, fish and turtles. Biologists said every fish in the creeks was killed, and many in the Big Sandy River died as well. The Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife Resources estimated that a total of 1.6 million fish were killed. Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, paid the state of Kentucky $3.25 million in damages. along with $225,000 to restock streams with tens of thousands of fish. 
The spill was over 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez's oil spill in Alaska. Five years later, despite a $46 million cleanup, lawsuits claimed that sludge remained in the soil. More than 400 people who took part in lawsuits against the coal company reached out-of-court settlements and agreed not to disclose the terms.
Study finds that Bush Administration concealed cancer risk from coal ash waste sites
In May 2009, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report finding that the Bush Administration failed to release information suggesting an alarmingly high cancer threat for people who live near coal ash waste dumps. According to the study, the Bush Administration only made a portion of the data available, hiding the true extent of the health risks associated with coal ash disposal sites.
In 2002, an EPA study showed significant risk of coal ash sumps, but requests for the data under the Freedom of Information Act were either denied or given documents with the estimates of cancer risk blacked out. A 2007 EPA assessment report found that people living near coal ash dump sites have as high as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic. It also determined that living near such dump sites raises an individual's risk of liver, kidney, lungs and other organ damage resulting from exposure to toxic metals in the ash.
The full EIP study can be found here.
EIP report says Pennsylvania coal ash dump is not adequately protected against groundwater contamination
The May 2009 study released by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice said that a 15-acre coal ash dump in Upper Mount Bethel Township, PA was not properly lined and did not have adequate controls to prevent groundwater contamination. The dump contains coal ash from the 427-megawatt Portland Generating Station, owned by RRI Energy. The report comes from previously unreleased data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Upper Mount Bethel Township Supervisor Judith Henckel said the power company needs to do more on environmental clean up.
Duke University scientists report TVA spill is still a problem
In November 2010 a study published by Duke University scientists in peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, documented contaminant levels in aquatic ecosystems over an 18-month period following the TVA coal ash spill in 2008.
By analyzing more than 220 water samples collected over the 18-month period, the Duke team found that high concentrations of arsenic from the TVA coal ash remained in the water trapped within river-bottom sediment — long after contaminant levels in surface waters dropped back below safe thresholds.
Samples extracted from 10 centimeters to half a meter below the surface of sediment in downstream rivers contained arsenic levels of up to 2,000 parts per billion — well above the EPA’s thresholds of 10 parts per billion for safe drinking water, and 150 parts per billion for protection of aquatic life.
The authors argued that these findings were evidence that coal ash waste ought to be designated a hazardous substance by the EPA. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Coal Waste Disposal Site in Bokoshe, Oklahoma Opposed by Local Community
Residents of Bokoshe, Oklahoma claim that a coal waste site run by a company called Making Money Having Fun located in the town is causing health problems among local residents. School children voiced their concerns by organizing a letter drive to send to their congressperson. "When I found out that nine kids out of seventeen in my sixth grade [class] that had asthma, I knew there was a problem," said Bokoshe teacher Diane Reece.
In December 2010, the students at Bokoshe Elementary in Oklahoma teamed up to ask AES to stop dumping fly ash from its AES Shady Point Generation Plant near their homes. The students believe that the coal ash has caused more than half their class of 17 kids to develop asthma. The AES Shady Point power plant sits just east of Bokoshe, a town of 450 residents. About a mile from its main street, a 50 foot wall of fly ash waste has piled up over the last eight years. The fly ash is dumped at a location owned and operated by Making Money Having Fun, LLC. Residents say the ash blows over to their town and covers everything. AES insists that the fly ash is safe and the company has taken steps to better contain the fly ash during transport to the dump site. But Bokoshe residents say they have reason to believe differently: "We feel like it's a hot spot for cancer and respiratory ailments,” resident Tim Tanksley told 5NEWS.
Other residents claim that cancer in the area is higher than other parts of Oklahoma due to the location of the coal ash site, debris of which blows around the community when winds pick up.
In December 2010 Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe and Congressman Dan Boren, after being prompted by AES, are being kept updated on the issue and have stated that something needs to be done about the site. However, residents were concerned that AES was calling in a favor to the public officials, both of whom have received campaign funds from AES. Both oppose federal regulation of the substance. AES donated $5,000 to Senator Inofe in the past eight years.
In August 2011, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ruled Making Money Having Fun's previous practice of accepting waste water from oil and gas wells - drilling fluid - was prohibited indefinitely until the company resolved its contamination problems in nearby waterways. The ruling came on top of a 2010 EPA cease-and-desist order against Making Money Having Fun for violations of the federal Clean Water Act, stemming from the discharge of pollutants into a tributary of Doe Creek, due to the mixing of fly ash with oil-field brine. Bret Sholar, an environmental analyst for the state Department of Mines, said the company continues to place fly ash into an abandoned strip-mining pit. Now, instead of mixing the oil-field brine with the fly ash, "they're just using water from the site. They've never stopped bringing in ash. They still have a coal ash permit," Sholar said.
Environmental groups demand release of list of 44 high risk coal waste sites
In June 2009, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the NRDC filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to a list of 44 coal ash disposal sites that EPA has classified as "high hazard." EPA has thus far refused to disclose which of the hundreds of coal ash sites across the country pose the biggest threat to neighboring communities. The agency was told by the US Department of Homeland Security not to release the information, citing unspecified national security concerns. The locations of other hazardous sites, such as nuclear power plants, are publicly available.
Groups sue EPA over coal ash rules
In April 2012, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force the Obama administration to finalize rules to regulate the containment and disposal of fly ash. Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project, and several other groups want the EPA to finalize coal ash standards the agency proposed previously.
EPA releases list of 44 "high hazard" coal ash dumps
In response to demands from environmentalists as well as Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, EPA made public its list of 44 "high hazard potential" coal waste dumps. The rating applies to sites at which a dam failure would most likely cause loss of human life, but does not include an assessment of the likelihood of such an event. The list includes sites in 10 states, including 12 in North Carolina, 9 in Arizona, 6 in Kentucky, 6 in Ohio, and 4 in West Virginia. Eleven of the sites belong to American Electric Power, 10 to Duke Energy. No Tennessee Valley Authority sites were included on the list. EPA relied on self-reporting by utilities to rank the facilities, and TVA classied all of its dump sites - including Kingston Fossil Plant - as "low hazard."
TVA reclassifies sites as "high hazard"
Two weeks after the release of EPA's list, Tennessee Valley Authority reclassified four of its coal disposal sites to “high.” The four sites include Colbert and Widows Creek Fossil Plants in Alabama and Bull Run Fossil Plant and Cumberland Steam Plant in Tennessee. TVA reclassified most of its other dumps as "significant" hazards, meaning that a dam failure would likely cause economic loss and environmental damage. TVA had initially ranked all its sites as having "low" hazard potential.
EPA's List of 44 High Hazard Potential Units
The following table comes from EPA's official list of Coal Combustion Residue (CCR) Surface Impoundments with High Hazard Potential Ratings. This list is organized alphabetically by company.
2010: Reports identify more "damage case" coal waste sites
On February 24, 2010 Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice released a report, "Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites" indicating that at least 31 “new damage cases” were not listed by the EPA in its 2010 coal-ash pollution sites. The groups identified the sites by assembling contamination data from state files using “similar criteria” to those sites the EPA had already identified. The 31 identified sites are spread across 14 states, including Delaware (1), Florida (3), Illinois (1), Indiana (2), Maryland (1), Michigan (1), Montana (1), Nevada (1), New Mexico (1), North Carolina (6), Pennsylvania (6), South Carolina (3), Tennessee (2), and West Virginia (2). Arsenic, selenium, and boron were among the dangerous chemicals found to have “migrated off” nearly half of the 31 sites where coal-fired power plants store their coal ash. The report concluded that the EPA must regulate coal ash waste in order to protect the public and the environment from the negative effects of coal waste.
The 2010 EarthJustice, Environmental Integrity Project, and Sierra Club report, "In Harm's Way: Lack of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans and their Environment," identified an additional 39 coal combustion waste (CCW) disposal sites in 21 states that have contaminated groundwater or surface water with toxic metals and other pollutants, based on monitoring data and other information available in state agency files.
When the findings from the two reports are added to the 67 damage cases that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) acknowledged in 2010, the total number of sites polluted by coal ash or coal scrubber sludge comes to at least 137 in 34 states.
In December 2011, the EIP released another report identifying 20 additional coal ash dump sites causing groundwater and soil contamination in 10 states – Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas - with 19 sites containing contaminated groundwater with arsenic or other pollutants at levels above Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL). The new report brings the total number of damage cases identified by EPA and other groups to 157.
EPA lists more "high hazard" dams in 2011
In November 2011, the EPA released a new set of data that revealed 181 “significant” hazard dams in 18 states - more than three times the 60 significant-hazard ponds listed in the original database released in 2009. In addition to the increase in the number of significant hazard-rated ponds, eight previously unrated coal ash ponds were found to be high hazard ponds in information released by the EPA earlier in 2011. Because of the switch in ratings after the EPA inspections, the total number of high hazard ponds has stayed roughly the same at a total of 47 ponds nationwide.
According to the National Inventory of Dams (NID) criteria, “high” hazard coal ash ponds are categorized as such because their failure will likely cause loss of human life. Six states that gained high hazard ponds include:
- Kentucky: Mill Creek Station, Louisville: 1 high hazard pond
- Ohio: Kyger Creek Station, Gallipolis: 2 high hazard ponds
- Indiana: Eagle Valley Station, Indianapolis: 1 high hazard pond
- Indiana: Harding Street Station, Indianapolis: 2 high hazard ponds
- Indiana: Schahfer Generating Station, Wheatfield: 2 high hazard ponds
- Missouri: Sikeston Power Station, Sikeston: 1 high hazard pond
- Pennsylvania: WPS Energy Services, Shamokin Dam: 1 high hazard pond
- Alabama: Gaston Steam Plant, Wilsonville: 1 high hazard pond
Coal ash regulation
Coal waste dumps contain billions of gallons of fly ash and other coal waste containing toxic heavy metals, which the EPA considers a threat to water supplies and human health. However, they are not subject to federal regulation, and there is little monitoring of their impacts on the local environment.
The EPA reclassified fly ash from waste to a reusable material in the 1980s, and the agency exempted ash from Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations for hazardous waste beginning in 1993. Coal ash has been exempt from federal regulation since October 1980, with the inception of the "Bevill Exclusion" to RCRA, section 3001(b)(3)(A)(ii). Bevill excludes from RCRA hazardous waste regulations the solid waste that results "from the extraction, beneficiation, and processing of ores and minerals." The exclusion held despite pending completion of a study and a Report to Congress, as required by federal law, and pending a determination by the EPA Administrator either to promulgate regulations under Subtitle C or to declare such regulations unwarranted.
In 1993 and 2000, EPA published regulatory determinations stating that coal ash waste does not warrant regulation under RCRA Subtitle C, which pertains to hazardous wastes, and should remain excluded from the definition of hazardous waste. In 2000, EPA determined that instead RCRA subtitle D regulating non-hazardous waste were applicable for coal combustion wastes, specifically those disposed in surface impoundments, landfills, and as fill in surface or underground mines. EPA further determined that beneficial uses of these wastes, other than for minefilling, pose no significant risk and no additional national regulations are needed.
In 2001, the EPA said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used for the disposal of coal waste. However, the agency has yet to act, and coal ash ponds are currently subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, despite the tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals stored in ash ponds across the U.S. State regulations vary, but most ash ponds are unlined and unmonitored. In January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute for Southern Studies looked into political contributions by the electrical utilities industry to the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. According to data Sturgis gathered from the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org website, members of the Senate committee accepted a total of $1,079,503 from the electric utilities industry in the 2008 elections.
2007 EPA Report
On July 9, 2007, EPA's Office of Solid Waste released a report titled "Coal Combustion Damage Case Assessments" documenting 24 cases of proven environmental damage and 43 cases of potential damage caused by the current coal ash disposal practices nationwide.
Sue Sturgis of the Institute for Southern Studies summed up some of the proven coal-ash damage cases documented in EPA's 2007 assessment:
- In 2002, a sinkhole developed in the coal ash pond at Southern Company's Georgia Power's Bowen Steam Plant near Cartersville, Ga. Eventually spreading four acres wide and 30 feet deep, the sinkhole led to the spill of an estimated 2.25 million gallons of a coal ash and water mixture into the nearby Euharlee Creek.
- Runoff from a fly ash pond at Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station in North Carolina contaminated nearby Belews Lake, which experts have called "one of the most extensive and prolonged cases of selenium poisoning of freshwater fish in the United States."
- At South Carolina Electric & Gas's Canadys Station along the Edisto River south of St. George, S.C., arsenic consistently has been found in monitoring wells at levels about drinking water standards, while nickel has also been detected on occasion above state standards. Both of those metals are known to cause cancer in humans.
- Residential wells near a coal ash disposal site for Virginia Power's Yorktown Power Station, now owned by Dominion, were found to be contaminated with selenium and vanadium, with selenium levels exceeding drinking water standards. Further investigation found heavy metals contamination in nearby Chisman Creek and its tributaries, with elevated levels of known carcinogens including arsenic, beryllium and chromium.
- Selenium poisoning of fish caused by runoff from coal ash ponds was also documented at reservoirs near Southwestern Electric Power's Pirkey Power Plant and its Welsh Power Plant in Texas, as well as near TXU's Martin Lake Steam Station.
EPA considers regulating coal ash
In May 2009, an EPA representative announced at an energy industry conference that the agency is preparing regulations on how to handle ash from coal-fired power plants. Matt Hale, the EPA official, said coal ash may be reclassified as hazardous waste. Although industry officials were vocal with objections, saying such a change would greatly increase disposal costs, Hale indicated that EPA hoped to have a proposal for national regulations by the end of the year. "The catastrophe at TVA changed the discussion and focused the discussion," he said.
In October of 2009 the EPA sent the White House a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Toxic Coal Ash. President Obama's choice as the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Cass Sunstein, oversees such policies but as of March 2010 has refused to act on the EPA's plea. Sunstein has come under scrutiny for allowing his office to meet with coal industry representatives more than 20 times since October 2010. All such meetings took place behind closed doors and were not open to the public. An anti-Sunstein website was launched in response in an attempt to force Sunstein and the White House to act on the EPA's proposed rule.
On December 17, 2009, EPA announced it was postponing its findings on coal ash regulations. A final decision had been expected before the end of the year. EPA attributed the delay to "the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing," but said the delay would only last "a short period." Earlier, in October of 2009 the EPA sent the White House a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Toxic Coal Ash. President Obama's choice as the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Cass Sunstein, oversees such policies but as of March 2010 has refused to act on the EPA's plea. Sunstein has come under scrutiny for allowing his office to meet with coal industry representatives more than 20 times since October 2010. All such meetings took place behind closed doors and were not open to the public. An anti-Sunstein website was launched in response in an attempt to force Sunstein and the White House to act on the EPA's proposed rule.
Office of Inspector General Investigates EPA's 'Partnership' with Coal Industry
On November 2, 2009 the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced in a report that a formal investigation into the EPA's "partnership" with the coal industry to market coal ash reuse in consumer, agricultural and industrial products was underway. The report also criticized the EPA for not releasing a report about cancer risks associated to the exposure of coal ash until March of 2009, a full seven years after the study was completed. The OIG investigation is a result of CBS's "60 Minutes" piece on coal ash in which EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson admitted that her agency had not produced any studies indicating that the re-use of coal ash was safe.
Western Governors Say States Should Regulate Coal Ash
On March 8, 2010 governors from the Western Governor's Association made a statement that the Obama administration should leave coal ash regulation to the states and resist the EPA's effort to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous material. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the pro-coal chairman of the governor's group, says the EPA's move to regulate coal ash would undercut what he described as "effective regulation by Western states." The governors state that the EPA's reclassification would prevent coal ash from being used in industrial practices like surface pavement. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says coal-fired electric generation in the West would also be hurt, which would cost ratepayers more money. Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah states that coal-fired electric generation in his state and others would also be hurt and would cost ratepayers more money.
EPA Proposes Competing Approaches To Regulate Coal-Ash Waste
On May 4, 2010 the U.S. EPA announced two competing proposals to regulate coal-ash waste produced by coal-fired power plants. The proposals would not declare coal ash a hazardous waste as desired by environmental groups and the waste material could continue to be reused in various ways, EPA officials said. The final decision on which proposal the EPA and choose is to happen in July 2010.
The EPA decided not to choose a single option amid pressure from industry and environmental groups. The federal agency said both proposals for the first time would place "national rules on the disposal and management of the waste material from coal-fired power plants." Yet the EPA's plan leaves open the question of whether to phase out wet storage impoundments in favor of landfills, with the dueling proposals differing on the issue, according to an EPA press briefing.
On May 10, 2010 the Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network released a press memo criticizing the EPA's decision stating:
- The agency presented two options with vastly differing approaches to handling the 4.4 million tons of coal ash that is generated each year in Illinois. Recent USEPA reports indicate that coal waste leaches hazardous pollution in much greater quantities than had been recognized previously, contributing to over 100 documented contamination sites nationwide, several of which are in Illinois.
- But another big concern for Illinois is the giant loophole left in the rules that will allow the coal industry to dump toxic coal ash in under-regulated and unprotected mines.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Coal Ash Industry-EPA Interference
On January 27, 2010, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a report that indicated the coal ash industry, with direct access to the EPA, manipulated reports and publications about the dangers of coal combustion waste. The group stated that the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the multi-billon dollar coal ash industry to have access to the EPA during the Bush administration years as well as under President Obama. The result has been a watering-down of crucial reports on human and environmental health related to coal waste. Documents obtained by PEER indicate that industry had access to a variety of EPA coal ash reports over the years and were successful in manipulating the information presented to the public about its negative effects.
The EPA reports were altered in several ways. References indicating the “high-risk” potential of coal combustion waste were deleted from PowerPoint presentations. Cautionary language about coal waste uses in agricultural practices was altered in order to remove negative connotations about the practice. And in 2007 the coal ash industry inserted language in an EPA report to Congress about how “industry and EPA [need to] work together” in order to block or water-down “state regulations [that] are hindering progress” in the use of coal ash waste.
House Committee votes to bar regulation as hazardous waste
A House committee approved legislation on July 13, 2011 that would bar federal regulation of coal ash as hazardous waste. The bill, passed 35-12 by the Energy and Commerce Committee, now moves to the House floor, where a Republican majority is expected to pass it. Six Democrats joined the committee’s Republicans in voting for the bill.
Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), sponsor of the bill (H.R. 2273 (pdf)) to prevent EPA from designating coal ash as hazardous, has collected more than $230,000 in mining and utility related donations in election cycle 2012, more mining donations than any other federal candidate according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As a whole, the CRP says mining related interests have contributed more than $2.8 million to federal candidates in election cycle 2012, with top donors being Murray Energy, the National Mining Association, Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal. Other major coal mining recipients include House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Groups sue EPA for coal ash regulation
In April 2012, eleven environmental organizations filed suit against the EPA to force it to better regulate toxic coal ash, citing recent groundwater contamination at 29 coal ash dump sites in 16 states, according to EPA data. Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit, said the EPA has not updated coal ash disposal and control regulations in more than 30 years, and continues to delay new rules despite recent evidence of "leaking waste ponds, poisoned groundwater supplies and threats to public health."
The environmental groups' lawsuit seeks an order to force the EPA to set deadlines for review and revision of coal ash regulations, as well as changes to tests done to determine if the waste is hazardous under federal law. Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA regulator, said the dumping of toxic coal ash is on the rise, with toxic heavy metals in power plant ash disposal up 10% from 2009 to 2010, to 113 million pounds. Overall, the nation's power plants produce approximately 150 million tons of ash a year.
Coal waste ponds in the United States
A January 2009 study by The New York Times following the enormous TVA coal ash spill found that there are more than 1,300 surface impoundments across the U.S., each of which can reach up to 1,500 acres. Also in January 2009, an Associate Press study found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured at Kingston Fossil Plant. The states with the most storage in coal ash in ponds are Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama. The AP's analysis found that in 2005, 721 power plants generating at least 100 MW of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash, about 20 percent of which - or almost 20 million tons - ended up in surface ponds. The rest of the ash winds up in landfills or is sold for other uses.
Top 100 coal waste storage sites in the U.S.
Also in January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies compiled a list of the 100 most polluting coal plants in the United States in terms of CCW stored in surface impoundments like the one at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant. Sturgis used data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2006, the most recent year available. The following table represents the amount of coal combustion waste released to surface impoundments in 2006 by the top 100 polluters.
Table courtesy of Sue Sturgis and the Institute for Southern Studies, based on EPA data for 2006. Figures rounded to the nearest pound.
Other uses for coal combustion waste
The utilities industry has promoted the reuse of coal combustion waste because of the growing amount produced each year — 131 million tons in 2007, up from less than 90 million tons in 1990. Uses for coal ash include construction fill, dry wall, and mine reclamation. In 2007, 50 million tons of fly ash was used for agriculture purposes, such as improving the soil’s ability to hold water, in spite of a 1999 EPA warning about high levels of arsenic.
Fly ash is also used to make cement. The use of fly ash in cement kilns in the U.S. has grown from about 1 million tons in 2001 to more than 4 million tons in 2006. Mercury and other metals in fly ash are transformed into vapor and released out of the kiln's smokestack. A 2007 EPA study found that mercury content in ash had increased by up to 850 percent as power plants met stricter federal rules for mercury emissions. The EPA estimates that cement plants produce about 23,000 pounds of mercury per year. In New York's Hudson Valley, the Lafarge cement plant releases between 380 and 400 pounds of toxic mercury per year, equivalent to the four largest coal plants in the state.
Fly ash is also used in a number of consumer products, including bowling balls and carpeting.
In muddy feedlots, fly ash is used to absorb excess water. The result, according to Debra Pflughoeft-Hassett, manager of the coal ash studies at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, ND, is that "animals gain weight and are less stressed."
Coal ash is also used along with salt to help clear snowy and icy roads and to provide tire traction.
Coal ash to melt ice
On February 18, 2010 the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began using coal ash to melt the thick ice on the Platte River in Omaha, Nebraska, in an attempt to prevent ice jams and severe flooding. Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club notes "This strikes us as a strange and dangerous move – one community is going to add coal ash to their water while many others are worried about how it will affect their water supplies." It is also argued that this use could continue as long as coal ash is not regulated by the EPA.
In Feb. 2011, Nebraska officials said they are again debating whether to spread coal ash, despite its contaminants, on the Platte River to help break up 20-inch-thick ice into small pieces to prevent ice jams and flooding. It would be the second straight year, and only the fifth winter in three decades, that Nebraska resorted to using coal dust on the river, said Al Berndt, assistant director for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Coal ash for coal mine reclamation
On December 15, 2010, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) asked the Pennsylvania Auditor General to investigate the use of coal waste to reclaim old coal mines, citing an alleged dereliction of duties by two state agencies. Pennsylvania pursues a policy of “beneficial use” of coal ash from power plants and kilns by pouring the wastes down abandoned mines despite, PEER said, the documented risks of severe water pollution, toxic vapor and even fire dangers.
PEER specifically targeted the principal report used to secure state regulatory approval of using coal ash as mine fill, "The Use of Dredged Materials in Abandoned Mine Reclamation," a report based on the Bark Camp Demonstration Project. A hydro-geologic expert, Robert Gadinski, filed a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of State in April 2008 about the lack of qualifications of the author of the Bark Camp report, under laws requiring state licensure for geologic consulting work in Pennsylvania. The Department has yet to act on Gadinski’s complaint.
Gadinski prepared a detailed critique of the Bark Camp report, stating:
- High prospects of groundwater pollution, as well as contamination of connected surface waters;
- Generation of toxic vapors in mine shafts; and
- Underground combustion of coal ash wastes.
Gadinski also filed complaints and reports with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), arguing that its reliance on the Bark Camp report was imprudent and legally questionable. PEER requested that the state Auditor General conduct a “performance audit” on both the Department of State for failure to enforce licensure laws and on the DEP for issuing reclamation permits on the basis of "unreliable information amassed from an individual unauthorized to practice geology."
Regulation of mercury and coal ash products
On August 18, 2010, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed regulatory comments with the EPA, saying that in allowing virtually unlimited reuse of coal ash and other highly toxic combustion wastes, the EPA is allowing the most potent pollutants to reach the environment in the manufacture, use, and disposal of second generation coal ash products. Coal combustion produces the nation's second biggest waste stream, second only to coal mining, and under EPA sponsorship, 60 million tons (nearly half the total) of coal ash and other coal waste are used in mine fill, cement, wallboard, snow and ice control, agriculture and even cosmetics. In summer 2010, the EPA put forward a proposal that would, at most, classify coal ash as hazardous only when it is in sludge (or "wet storage.")
In comments filed with the EPA regulatory docket, PEER points out that due to stronger air pollution controls on emissions of mercury and other toxics, the mercury levels in coal ash and other wastes has been rising and will likely nearly double between 2010 and 2020. PEER said the data EPA used to make its May 2000 regulatory determination that coal ash is not hazardous is no longer representative of today's waste stream, and that EPA is ignoring its own scientific findings about mercury and other toxics reaching the environment from cross-media transfers (e.g., air to water), exposure and disposal of coal ash:
- Manufacture - Cement manufacture is the single biggest reuse but studies show that the high temperatures in cement kilns release all of the mercury in the coal combustion waste to the atmosphere - Similarly, gypsum wallboard plants are a secondary release point for mercury;
- Leaching and Loss - Mercury and other toxics spill in transport and leach out of products;
- Disposal - Products containing coal ash are disposed of in ways that release their toxic elements when the products are incinerated, pulverized or buried in unlined pits.
March 2011: EPA reports concerns over coal ash uses
On March 23, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general released a report stating that the federal government had promoted some uses of coal ash, including wallboard or filler in road embankments, without properly testing the environmental risks. The report said wallboard "may represent a large universe of inappropriate disposal applications with unknown potential for adverse environmental and human health impacts." Coal ash recyclers and manufacturers that use it have argued that tougher federal regulations would place a stigma on the substance and hinder efforts to reuse some of the 130 million tons produced at U.S. coal-fired power plants each year. The EPA halted a program in 2010 that promoted beneficial uses of coal ash, and took down a related website. The program, called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership, was started in 2001 with a goal of increasing the recycling of coal ash for use in other applications.
Coal tar sealants
In May 2012, it was reported that airborne emissions and stray dust from coal tar–based sealers, one of the two main types of products used to coat certain asphalt pavements, may be a more significant human health threat than previously thought, according to three new studies and a review published by U.S. government and university researchers. Coal tar–based sealers contain an average concentration of 16 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) about 1,300 times greater than that found in asphalt-based sealers. PAHs are believed to be linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer. In 2003, coal tar–based sealers became a suspect contributor to the elevated concentrations of PAHs in metropolitan areas.
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Related SourceWatch articles
- Fly ash management and use in Australia
- Fly ash management and use in the United States
- TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill
- TVA Widows Creek coal waste spill
- Coal waste
- Coal sludge
- Martin County sludge spill
- Coal slurry impoundment
- Retrofit vs. Phase-Out of Coal-Fired Power Plants
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Massey Energy
- Federal coal subsidies
- Estimating U.S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources 2002-2008
- State coal subsidies
- Health effects of coal
- Mercury and coal
- Heavy metals and coal
- Sulfur dioxide and coal
- Environmental impacts of coal
- Air pollution from coal-fired power plants
- United States and coal
- Ash Development Association of Australia
- American Coal Ash Association
- Asian Coal Ash Association
- UK Quality Ash Association
- The Fly Ash Resource Centre - http://www.rmajko.com/flyash.html
- University of Wisconsin Milwaukee - Center for Byproducts Utilization
- University of Kentucky - Center for Applied Energy Research
- Worldwide Coal Combustion Products Network
- Coal Ash Ponds of the Southeast, Interactive map at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy website.
- Martha Keating, Ellen Baum and Eric Round, "Laid to Waste: The Dirty Secret of Combustion Waste from America's Power Plants," Citizens Coal Council, Hoosier Environmental Council, Clean Air Task Force, March 2000.
- Martha Keating,"Cradle to Grave: The Environmental Impacts from Coal," Clean Air Task Force, June 2001
- House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources: Oversight Hearing,"How Should the Federal Government Address the Health and Environmental Risks of Coal Combustion Waste?", June 10, 2007.
- Coal Combustion Waste, As You May or May Not Know..., March 27, 2008.
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- "Coal Ash: A National Problem Needs a National Solution," Earth Justice fact sheet, January 2009
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- J. Henry Fair, "Coal Ash: The Hidden Menace (PHOTOS)" Huffington Post, September 2010.