Coal ash has been in the news recently due to an East Tennessee spill that decimated living conditions for many in the area with a 300 acre spread of a billion gallons of sludge. The coal ash pond that ruptured is one of 1,300 such ponds, many of which are upwards of 1,500 acres, spread across the United States. These ponds are home to billions of gallons of fly ash and other byproducts of burning coal.
The coal ash ponds contain many heavy metals are dangerous to human and environmental health. These heavy metals include arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium. Coal ash can leach into waterways, groundwater and simply the environment. The subsequent result of coal ash leaching can be cancer, birth defects, drastic declines in wildlife (including fish, birds and frogs) and numerous other woes.
A major cause of concern is the fact that these coal ash ponds are generally unregulated and unmonitored. There is no federal regulation of coal ash ponds in the United States, even though the Environmental Protection Agency lists heavy metals contained in the ash ponds as dangerous for human and environmental health. Dr. Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, testified before a Congressional subcommittee last year regarding health effects of coal ash. Mr. Burke states: “Your household garbage is managed much more consistently [than coal ash].”
Coal ash is frequently used as construction fill throughout the country. Take for instance a golf course formed with 1.5 million tons of fly ash. The golf course opened in 2007, yet in 2008 very high levels of heavy metals were found in groundwater below the golf course. These heavy metals included lead and arsenic. The E.P.A. has reported numerous other contaminations due to coal ash dump sites. In 2007, the E.P.A. listed 63 sites of water contamination by heavy metals due to coal ash sites.
Coal ash has even been used in the agricultural field in order to improve soil’s ability to hold water. This continues to be done even though the E.P.A. warned of high levels of arsenic in 1999. In 2007, at least 50 tons of fly ash was used in agriculture. It is also worthy to note that water contaminated with coal ash and high in arsenic levels can increase cancer risk several hundredfold.
In 2000, the E.P.A. nearly designated coal ash as a hazardous waste, which would have required monitoring and regulation, but did not go through with the designation. The plan failed due to industry pressure regarding cost. The coal industry claimed that it would cost $5 billion a year in 2000, that claim is up to $11 billion in 2007. Rather than listing it as a hazardous waste, the E.P.A. said it would simply regulation the disposal of coal ash, but it has failed to do that as well.
The safest way to store coal is in lined landfills, however at least 45 percent of new disposal sites did not use these liners as of 2006. These liners approved of by the E.P.A. in order to minimize leaching. Most coal ash is stored along waterways, which causes a greater risk of contamination. Most coal ash is stored wet, whereas the safest storage is in dry landfills with caps and linings. The company responsible for the East Tennessee spill, Tennessee Valley Authority, considered switching to dry disposal in 2003 but decided against it due to cost. It would have cost $25 million to switch. However, judging from a coal ash spill 1/10th the size of the Tennessee spill in Pennsylvania which cost less than $25 million to clean up, they will be dishing out a lot more money than dry storage would have cost.