Coal ash: Truly hazardous
Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency held the last of eight public hearings on how to address the huge volumes of toxic coal-ash waste produced by the nation's more than 600 coal-burning power plants.
Nationwide, power plants generate more than 140 million tons of coal-ash waste every year, enough to fill a train stretching across the United States several times over. Coal ash contains concentrations of a number of toxic substances arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium and other chemicals that can cause cancer and a host of human health and ecological problems, even at low-level exposures.
At issue is whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. The EPA's decision will have implications for every state that burns coal for power, including Utah, which burns the fourth-most coal in the West, producing 2.3 million tons of coal-ash waste annually at six coal-fired power plants. The coal-ash waste is contained in at least six sludge ponds and at least four landfills, according to an EPA database, and several of the disposal sites are unlined and have no system to collect toxic substances that leach into the ground.
As a toxicologist specializing in the health effects of human exposure to low levels of lead and mercury, particularly in children, I testified at the final EPA hearing in Knoxville, Tenn., not far from the site of the nation's worst-ever coal-ash disaster. I have paid close attention to the comments and testimony from the EPA's other hearings as well. Throughout, I have noted a consistent thread in much of the testimony, regardless of whether the person favors strong and enforceable federal regulations or more lenient controls at the state level.
Nobody debates that coal ash contains toxic chemicals. And they can't, because arsenic, lead and mercury are all present in coal ash.
Already, the EPA and science-based advocacy groups have identified more than 130 sites where inadequate disposal has allowed some of these chemicals to seep into land and groundwater supplies. To prevent even more cases of contamination at the thousands of disposal sites nationwide, it makes sense to treat coal-ash waste for what, by its chemical makeup, it clearly is: hazardous waste.
Subjecting disposal of coal ash to strong and enforceable federal oversight will in no way affect the recycling and use of coal ash in numerous products, from drywall and road base material to cement. Roughly 40 percent of coal ash is reused in these and other applications. Recycling of coal ash before it gets to the disposal phase will be specifically exempt from any disposal regulations because the material is not destined for a landfill or sludge pond.
Much of the testimony by opponents of more protective regulations has come from industry representatives and people who rely on this stream of material in their business operations: construction companies, contractors and road builders, to name a few. Many have said they are fearful of the "stigma" that a hazardous waste designation on coal-ash waste would bring, even though, technically, new rules wouldn't have any direct impact on reuse.
These people have legitimate concerns that the EPA should address, perhaps by working with them to educate the public about the ways coal ash is reused.
But by no means should we let the idea of commercial "stigma" and its impact on a product trump the true nature of this debate. There are very dangerous substances in coal ash that can and have leached into land and groundwater. Currently, disposal sites are subject to inconsistent and often inadequate state regulations that put the environment and human health at risk, particularly children.
The only way to ensure the safety of people living near a coal-ash disposal site, or near a water supply that could potentially be contaminated by one, is through a strong and enforceable federal regulatory framework with minimum safety requirements for liners and collection systems, testing and monitoring, and cleanup when necessary.
The EPA has an ethical responsibility to protect Americans from potential exposure to arsenic, mercury and other coal-ash contaminants. We must stop passing on the real cost of energy to future generations by enacting the most protective rules possible, not defer that responsibility through looser rules that put a premium on marketing considerations.
The EPA is accepting comments on its proposed coal-ash regulations through Friday. Comments can be submitted online directly to the EPA at:
Steven Gilbert is a diplomat of the American Board of Toxicology and founder and director of the Seattle-based Institute for Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders.