Clean Up Toxic Coal Ash

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing the first-ever national rules to ensure the safe disposal and management of coal ash from coal-fired power plants. Coal ash is one of the wastes left over from the burning of coal to make electricity.  Why does it need to be regulated?  It contains toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, selenium, chromium and cadmium.
In the past, fly ash generally was released into the atmosphere.  Pollution control equipment mandated in recent decades now requires that it be captured prior to release.  Once captured, coal ash is either:

  • Placed in large surface impoundments.  Did you know there are 21 coal ash ponds in Illinois, and 17 of these are 30 years old, making them far more likely to lack pollution safeguards?
  • Sent to landfills or dumped into abandoned mines.
  • Recycled by either reusing it in commercial products or adding it to public lands, farmland or roadbeds.  This is called “beneficial use”.

Currently, there are no national regulations and little to no state regulations for storing this hazardous material. This needs to change. We know coal ash is toxic.  We know it is poisoning families, communities, and our environment.  And we know it has not yet been classified as hazardous. Until that changes, companies can keep dumping it without any safeguards.

Without proper protection, toxic chemicals can leach into groundwater, contaminating drinking water and causing increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects and other illnesses.  As our friends at Sierra Club explain, “Coal ash is toxic, but less strictly controlled than household garbage!”

Two options are being proposed for comment:
  • The first would treat coal as “hazardous waste”, meaning that pollution controls would be mandatory nationwide, and the EPA would be required to enforce them (Subtitle “C”).
  • The second option is favored by the coal industry.  It proposes that individual states take the lead and set guidelines through a weaker, household waste designation.  And this second option leaves compliance up to us through civil lawsuits (Subtitle “D”).

Neither option would regulate ash that is placed in abandoned mine shafts or recycled or reused as “beneficial use”.  This leaves large holes in proposed regulations, with significant potential health and environmental hazards unregulated.

As environmental groups lobby for the more stringent hazardous waste regulation proposed as Subtitle “C”, industries will be expected to put up a strong fight. That’s why we are asking you to give your comments to the US EPA, and give testimony at the hearing if you can.

Date: September 16, 2010
Location:  Hilton Chicago, 720 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60605, 3rd floor
Time: 10am – 9pm and Sierra Club Rally at 5 pm (across the street)

Pre-Register: Reserve a time to speak with the EPA
Read More:  Learn more about each option

OR you can click here to submit written comments.  The comment period for Chicago ends November 19, 2010.  We hope that you support Subtitle “C” and ask the EPA to expand their regulations to cover placing coal ash in abandoned mines and those beneficial “reuses”, such as using coal ash for fill material, roadbed construction and application as a mineral supplement on agricultural fields.  Each of these practices can, and already has, caused significant harm (continue reading… What Also Needs to Be Regulated, below).


The US EPA is NOT proposing to regulate either the dumping of coal ash into abandoned mines or “beneficial use”, or the recycling and reuse of coal ash.   Remember – coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, chromium, selenium, lead and other toxins.

Did You Know…

  • The practice of mine-filling is where coal companies dump coal ash waste into abandoned mines without liners or federal oversight, where it can leach heavy metals when it comes in direct contact with groundwater. Without addressing this issue, the EPA is allowing a loophole that will actually encourage coal companies to dump more coal ash into abandoned mines, as other options are more tightly regulated.
  • Of the more than 136 million tons of coal ash produced in 2008, enough to fill one million railroad cars, about 44%, or 60 million tons, was reused.  The U.S. EPA’s proposed rules are set up to completely exempt all beneficial use coal combustion wastes – including those applied on agricultural lands.
  • Coal ash is often mixed with sewage sludge and other waste and then spread on farm fields (especially in the South). While it may improve the soil’s ability to hold water and increase crop yields (it  contains calcium and magnesium),  it also contains toxic metals — and research from Indiana State University has shown that food crops can take up dangerous levels of arsenic from the ash.
  • Another popular method for disposal of coal ash that is raising concern is its use as a substitute for fill dirt in construction projects.  Uncovered coal ash roads were once common in the Town of Pines, IN. The ash once used as filler material for roads, building projects and dumped in the local landfill, now contaminates the towns’ ground water.
  • Last year, Florida homeowners filed a class action suit against the manufacturers of a Chinese drywall company for using toxic fly ash in materials used to construct their homes.  Residents claimed fumes from drywall causes respiratory health problems, headaches, dry eyes and nosebleeds.

We need EPA to regulate ALL coal ash, including minefilling and “beneficial use” which is being exempted from both proposals.  Ask EPA to regulate coal ash as hazardous wastes under Subtitle C and require stringent monitoring and pollution controls to protect our water. But also, urge EPA to take bold action to protect our health and preserve the integrity of our environment, upon which all life depends.

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