Electricity generation imposes heavy environmental and health costs in the U.S. Thanks to Clean Water Action and allies, most people are now aware of problems associated with the coal that fuels nearly half the country’s electricity needs. Toxic mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants contaminate fish caught by recreational anglers in most states. These same smokestacks emit particulates and smog-causing chemicals responsible for cancers, asthma and other respiratory disease. Burning coal also releases the greenhouse gasses that accelerate global warming. Mining, processing and transporting coal to the power plants adds to the devastation.
But there is another coal-burning danger — no less serious than these others — which far fewer people have heard about: Coal ash, the toxic residue that remains after coal is burned. Coal ash contains high levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic substances. Coal ash is the nation’s second largest waste stream. Yet despite these concerns, coal ash has never been regulated by the federal government. This means that some states may have stricter standards for municipal trash than for toxic coal ash.
Coal ash is often “stored” in unlined ponds close to drinking water sources, making it easier for soil and water contamination problems to occur. Unsafe coal ash disposal affects thousands of communities in nearly every state — from Colorado to Florida, to Michigan and many places in between. Nearly 200 communities have had their water contaminated with coal ash.
Well-publicized spills and breaches from coal ash dumps and impoundments include a devastating 2008 coal ash dam collapse in Tennessee and a recent landslide into Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Until coal ash is properly regulated, communities will continue to be at risk of exposure to this toxic waste, whether from catastrophic spills or slow, toxic seepages that threaten drinking water supplies. The industry also markets and re-sells more than one third of all coal ash wastes for what it calls “beneficial use.” This means the still-toxic material is added to concrete and wall board, spread as agricultural fertilizer, used to de-ice roads, or dumped into abandoned mines. All of these uses threaten water because they can allow the heavy metals to migrate through erosion, leaching or runoff.
EPA says that people who live near coal ash disposal sites face higher risks for cancer and nervous system damage, cognitive defects, developmental delays and behavioral problems in children, reproductive problems, birth defects, lung disease and asthma.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acted recently to begin protecting public health and fight global warming with new regulations on toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants.
But EPA action on coal ash disposal is less far along and faces serious challenges. Polluters and their allies in Congress are working to block any EPA action on coal ash. They hope to maintain the status quo by permanently denying EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash.
Clean Water Action and allies are campaigning for the Obama Administration to finalize new EPA rules that would require minimum, enforceable safeguards to protect public health and the environment from toxic coal ash. Clean Water Action is also pressing U.S. Senators to reject pending legislation that would prevent EPA from enforcing minimum coal ash standards.