how is coal ash managed?
Electric power plants generate 140 million tons of coal ash annually, making it the second largest waste stream in the U.S., second only to common household garbage. Though coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic materials that are known to cause cancer and other health problems, it is less regulated than your household trash. In fact, there are NO federally enforceable safeguards in place to protect public health and the environment from this hazardous waste. Instead, coal ash is regulated through a patchwork of mostly inadequate state regulations.
Coal ash is managed in a few different ways. It is commonly disposed of onsite in landfills or surface impoundment ponds, and sometimes in abandoned mines. Dry coal ash is usually buried in a landfill, but sometimes it is simply stored in piles on land. A smaller percentage of dry waste is dumped in abandoned mines. Wet coal ash is stored in natural or man-made depressions or in earthen dams.
The exact number of coal ash disposal sites is unknown. In 2009 EPA conducted a survey of existing surface impoundment ponds and discovered there are at least 584 nationwide (nearly double the number initially estimated), but there is no comparable information on dry landfills. Moreover, there is no comprehensive estimate of how many disposal sites built before 1994 exist, are still in operation, or may have not been properly closed.
A sizeable amount of coal ash is also reused as an ingredient in concrete, cement, drywall, road base or structural fill. Not all coal ash reuse is safe – in fact, when recklessly “recycled” coal ash can be downright devastating to communities. For example the town of Pines, Indiana was declared a Superfund site after a fill and roads project using reclaimed coal ash contaminated the town’s drinking water with lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals.The amount of coal ash generated each year is tremendous, and will continue to increase both in volume and toxic concentration as power plants become more efficient at capturing pollutants.