Coal Combustion Waste - What Is It, and Why Care?
Coal combustion waste, or coal ash, is the waste that's left over when coal is burned in a power plant to generate electricity. It can include fly ash, bottom ash, and boiler slag, and flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) or scrubber sludge from air emissions controls. Coal ash can be hazardous because of its concentrated levels of toxic metals that can leach into water at unsafe levels. It can cause cancer and is harmful to humans and wildlife.
Although the U.S. EPA adopted federal rules in October of 2015, these rules do not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste and are self-implementing. And, over the past four years, they have been substantially weakened by the Trump Administration. The Illinois EPA has drafted state rules, that are stronger, but not yet strong enough to protect groundwater and surface water from leaking coal ash pollution when impoundments are unlined.
Illinois has the most coal ash disposal sites of any state in the country, and ranks second in the nation with respect to the number of contaminated sites. Join EJC and its partner organizations as we work together to ensure that Illinois adopts the strongest rules possible. They should include meaningful evaluation of alternatives for closure or cleanup; a public involvement process to allow input on alternatives; and financial guarantees that ensures the corporations - not the taxpayers - will be responsible for cleanup.
Coal ash is our country's second largest waste stream. It is a byproduct of coal combustion and contains high levels of harmful heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and selenium. As technology has allowed power plants to capture more hazardous pollutants that would have gone into our air, these toxins have become part of the solid waste mixture that is coal ash. We have traded one form of toxic pollution for another.
Stored in ash pits, also known as ponds, coal ash is leaching into our streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater. Contaminants from coal ash are a serious public health hazard and can increase the risk of cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders, among other medical problems.
2014 Duke Energy's Dab River coal ash spill. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Coal ash ponds are also prone to collapse. In 2008, a coal ash pond at TVA's coal plant near Kingston, TN breached, sending over 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the Clinch and Emory Rivers. More recently, another large coal ash spill occurred early in February 2014 when a Duke Energy coal ash pit breached and released up to 27 million gallons of polluted water and over 82,000 tons of ash along the Dan River in North Carolina. Unfortunately, environmental catastrophes such as this are becoming more frequent.
Threat to Your Health
Most of the coal ash ponds in Illinois are unlined, and many are leaking into adjoining surface and ground waters, polluting drinking water supplies and threatening fish and wildlife. When groundwater near Illinois’ 24 coal-fired power plants was tested by the Illinois EPA in 2009, coal ash contamination was found at EVERY single site.
When coal ash spills, leaks or leaches into nearby groundwater or waterways, the toxins contained within pose serious health risks to nearby communities. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that living near certain coal ash ponds is significantly more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
A person living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond has a 1 in 50 lifetime risk of cancer — more than 2,000 times higher than the EPA goal for cancer risk. Other health risks include birth defects and neurological damage.
Banner (top) photo: 2008 TVA coal ash spill near Kingston, TN. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife.