Should The EPA Regulate Coal Ash?
As of today, the US Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate Coal Ash as a hazardous waste but some environmentalists argue that it should be. Coal ash is currently exempt from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which regulates and classifies hazardous waste in all its stages of existence.
Nevertheless, the EPA has taken steps to consider classifying coal ash as a waste – but has yet to determine a decision of which we can expect one by late 2012 or early 2013 after the elections.
Meanwhile the twitterverse is begging Congress to act now against toxic #coal ash…
Coal Ash Explained
Coal ash is a waste product from the ubiquitous coal-fired power plant industry and is basically the leftover residue from the combustion of coal. In the past, coal particulates were allowed to be released into the atmosphere, but thanks to recent environmental protections in the last few decades, pollution controls have mandated the capture of these particulates. In 1978 though, the EPA sought to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste but was granted an exemption with the passage of the Bevill Amendment to the RCRA in 1980. The Bevill amendment passed Congress with the leadership of Representative Tom Bevill (D-Alabama), from coal-reliant Alabama who chaired the House Energy Development and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. Tom argued during hearings in Congress that:
“It would be unreasonable for EPA to impose costly and burdensome regulatory requirements without knowing if a problem really exists, and if it does, the true nature of that problem.”
Fast-forward 32 years later, and here we are in 2012 debating whether the Bevill amendment should be overturned so that coal ash can be classified as the hazardous waste that it is.
The makeup of the remnants of this coal ash can contain several concerning toxics/heavy metals which may include one or more of the following:
- Selenium, strontium, or thallium
- Arsenic, beryllium, or boron
- Cobalt, lead, or manganese
- Cadmium, chromium, or chromium 6
- How about a little mercury or molybdenum
- Vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds
- Let’s not forget silicon dioxide and calcium oxide
Environmentalists point to several disasters over the years as reasons we should treat coal ash as a hazardous substance considering its poisonous effects to humans, animals, and the environment…but one sticks out like a sore thumb.
The famous toxic ash spill in Tennessee that occurred on December 22, 2008 dumped 22 Billion gallons of toxic/poisonous muck – mostly coal ash – that breached a levee at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The disaster almost buried entire homes in the area spanning over 300 acres of land and raised long-term health concerns due to toxics and heavy metals in the coal ash. Experts agreed that worries from that spill shouldn’t be limited to human health because of the wildlife that would be threatened for years by the remains of mercury, cadmium, thallium, arsenic, etc. in the coal ash. The danger of these toxics and metals in the environment and in local wildlife is that they are bio-accumulative, in which the toxins could work their way up the food chain to humans over a span of a few years.
Critics now say it is unsafe to dispose of coal ash in coal ash ponds or in landfills because of the risks this activity poses to people living nearby and the high potential for groundwater contamination.
What About Recycling Coal Ash?
There are some controversial uses for coal ash as a recycled product, for example some cement companies are using recycled coal ash because of its unique properties viewed as acceptable for concrete. But even when used as a concrete filler and other uses such as in embankments, road base, or as a fertilizer (controversial as well)… it only accounts for 7 million tons of the 136 million tons generated in the United States (2009 figure) every year. The American Coal Ash Association calls for more use of coal ash in recycled products, but environmentalists fear that using it in other products spreads the risk to other communities.
The EPA is weighing concerns that research into the practical applications for recycling coal ash will be stymied if they go through with classifying it as hazardous material – even though they say they would exempt coal ash recycling from their ruling. However, industry users of coal ash as a recycled product worry that the ruling could create a fear in using the product as intended. The counter argument to that statement is that a ruling that classifies coal ash as a hazardous waste would create a major incentive to recycle it as a product rather than having to pay extra to dispose of as a hazardous waste.
Environmental Justice Prevails
As the debate continues, the inspector general of the Tennessee Valley Authority has been monitoring their groundwater supplies near coal ash dump sites and found that eight out of nine sites were leeching contaminates.
More recently, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan ruled that the the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is responsible for all the damages of the Coal Ash spill in 2008 for failing to follow its own policies and procedures that could have prevented the breached levee. As a direct result of the ruling, the utility company is on the hook for an unspecified amount of compensation to the more than 800 people who sued following the coal ash flood.
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