Coal ash is the hazardous residue left over from coal-fired power plants that contains high levels of mercury and arsenic. This issue poses a complex challenge to environmentalists, utilities, industry experts and government agencies as they all attempt to manage this material in order to minimize health hazards.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates ash as nonhazardous solid waste and works to ensure its safe disposal. After decades of study and consultation, the agency adopted regulations in October that will go into effect soon.
But the rules have created an intricate balance between regulators and the power plant industry. Utility companies contend that the regulations are too stringent, while environmentalists and some states contend they are too lax.
Uses That Benefit the Environment – And The Economy
Coal ash can sometimes be put to beneficial uses like replacing road salt or adding it into construction materials like concrete and brick. These uses, known as “encapsulated” beneficial uses, reduce landfill or pond accumulation of coal ash and protect groundwater from toxic contamination.
Encapsulated uses also help reduce the carbon footprint associated with producing and using these products, since most of the ash used is from coal that had already been burned. According to EPA regulations, encapsulated beneficial uses are less of a burden on the environment than dumping ash into landfills, making them an advantageous long-term strategy for both industry and national economic development.
Some coal ash is re-used on farms and in fields as a soil amendment that can improve soil quality. This practice has gained support from environmentalists and some utilities, though it can be tricky to apply safely due to potential heavy metal contamination.
According to Clean Wisconsin’s study, groundwater samples taken near coal ash landfills and reuse sites had unsafe levels of heavy metals like molybdenum and lead. These metals can lead to cancer or reproductive issues in humans.
Re-use can be especially detrimental to low-income and minority communities. These groups are disproportionately affected by pollution, and typically have poorer quality drinking water sources.
One of the best ways to determine whether a re-use project is hazardous is by consulting local utility websites. These websites provide details about ponds at each utility and whether they are polluting groundwater.
If a utility company discovers that its site is contaminated with coal ash, it must notify you via its website. This should include information regarding the location and size of the pond as well as whether or not it’s causing groundwater pollution.
Earthjustice, a nonprofit that handles lawsuits related to coal-ash pollution, has created an interactive map and spreadsheet of ponds across America compiled from public databases of monitoring data at power plants.
Reusing coal ash is controversial due to the potential negative impacts on the environment and people’s health, yet some utilities and environmental advocates believe that it is the only viable way to deal with a resource which is becoming scarcer. The EPA and other agencies are currently studying these potential hazards and have proposed new standards for storing ash safely so as to limit health hazards.