How Much? FIVE TIMES Higher Than Normal Soil
Scientists have known for many years that coal — and its combustion wastes contain radioactive elements. However, they lacked a complete picture of radioactivity in coal ash, which is the country’s second-largest waste stream.
A newly-released Duke University-led study published in Environmental Science & Technology, now shows that radioactive elements are present in both coal and coal ash from all three major coal basins — the Illinois, Appalachian and Powder River basins. The levels of radioactivity in the coal ash were also up to FIVE TIMES higher than levels in normal soil and up to TEN TIMES higher than in the parent coal itself itself because of the way combustion concentrates radioactivity.
What is Coal Ash?
Coal combustion waste, or coal ash, is a byproduct of burning coal. Illinois generates more than 4.4 million tons of coal ash every year, and imports toxic ash from six other states. This toxic waste is stored at more than 24 power plant sites throughout the state, ranking Illinois as #1 in the country for the total number of coal ash disposal sites.
Most of these disposal pits are not lined, and many are leaking. Coal ash contaminants have been found in groundwater at every single coal-fired power plant site investigated by the Illinois EPA in Illinois. Living near coal ash impoundments increases one’s risk for serious medical problems, such as:
- Birth defects.
- Neurological damage.
- Reproductive issues.
- Tumors and cancers.
Is Monitoring Required?
While companies must monitor levels of contaminants in coal ash ponds and nearby groundwater, they are not required to monitor radioactivity. Therefore, we don’t yet know how much of these contaminants are released to the environment, and how they might affect human health in areas where coal ash ponds and landfills are leaking.
What We Can Do
The first-ever nationwide coal ash bill was passed in December, 2014. However, in late July, the House passed H.R. 1734, a bill aimed at gutting this bill before it takes effect in October, 2015. We need stronger, not weaker legislation.
While the EPA rules do not specifically address radioactive elements, they do address the leaking of contaminants into ground water, the blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, and the catastrophic failure of coal ash surface impoundments H.R. 1734 eliminates the EPA’s ban on dumping toxic coal ash directly into drinking water aquifers. The bill is currently in the Senate, awaiting action.
Watch EJC’s website for actions you can take to help prevent HR 1734 and its companion bill SB 180 from becoming law.