Coal ash is the waste product left over from burning coal. It is almost entirely unregulated, high in heavy metals, and every year energy companies generate more than 150 million tons of it. While most waste reduction efforts target residential recycling and sometimes construction debris, coal ash is the second largest waste stream in the United States and can be found in 47 states. The ash is disposed of in lagoons (wet pits), landfills (dry pits), and mine pits. It can and has leaked from all of these types of dump sites .
After a devastating coal ash spill in December 2008 in Harriman, TN major news outlets began to take notice.
The outlets asked basic, yet revealing questions – What is coal ash? Where is it stored? How is it stored? How does it affect communities when it spills or leaks? Is it regulated?
The answers are alarming. Coal ash contains boron, cadmium, selenium, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and other dangerous elements. The ash is often stored in large unmaintained surface impoundments, ponds, and abandoned mine sites. There are more than 180 known sites that store this ash in unlined or partially lined pits. Coal ash accidents can take various forms from the collapse of a surface impoundment dam (as happened in TN) or in metals leaching into ground and drinking water. Leaking sites span Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, and Virginia. The list goes on. In 2007 the EPA confirmed 24 cases of leaking ash pits that resulted in contaminated water bodies. Then, in 2010 it had confirmed 67 leaking sites.
These leaking sites pose a health threat to the communities in which they are located. A risk assessment drafted by the EPA in August 2007, estimated that exposure to coal combustion waste (CCW) raises an individual’s cancer risk 9x higher than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and 900x higher than the ‘acceptable risk’ calculated under EPA’s regulatory framework (Source: Sierra Club) . The assessment found that of people who live near a coal ash site, 1 in 50 are diagnosed with cancer from arsenic contamination (an ‘ingredient’ in coal ash). The In Harm's Way (PDF) report (2010) found that every single ash site equipped with groundwater monitors showed arsenic levels in exceedance of the federal drinking water standards. And as air pollution controls improve, the ash becomes more toxic since heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic are filtered out and collected in the ash.
Despite the EPA’s analysis confirming the adverse health effects of coal ash exposure, there are no federal regulations on the waste and coal ash is entirely unregulated in at least 20 states . On coal ash regulation, Sue Sturgis, investigative reporter with Facing South online magazine writes, “For example, most states don't require groundwater monitoring and runoff collection at coal ash impoundments, and more than half don't require liners or financial assurances to guarantee the owners can pay for cleanup of any contamination that might occur.”
Often the waste is shipped to the cheapest, least regulated depository - often in low-income communities. For instance, following the massive ash spill in Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began shipping its waste more than 300 miles south to Perry County, AL. In Perry County (where coal ash is entirely unregulated), residents found themselves the unconsulted hosts of 3 million tons of coal ash from Harriman, TN’s spill. The coal ash facility in Uniontown, AL is surrounded by three churches and 212 people within a radius of a mile and a half.
Run-off from its massive landfill is 80x the safe drinking water standard .
Uniontown is 88 percent African-American and nearly half of its residents live below the poverty line – a fact that has raised questions about environmental injustice, including environmental racism.
Uniontown is just one of many low-income communities to sit beside a coal ash dump. An analysis of 44 sites the EPA lists as “high hazard” (where dam failure would likely cause loss of life), shows that 45 percent are in areas with large low-income populations. Though national poverty rates hover around 12 percent, several of the sites are situated in areas with poverty levels of 19, 20, and 29 percent . Trends of environmental injustice based on race and class could be significantly more pronounced if the analysis included sites that pose a threat due to leaching or if it analyzed all coal ash sites, not only the ones identified as “high hazard”.
Large-scale spills, a growing list of leaky sites & correlating adverse health impacts, charges of environmental racism at ash dumps, and the sheer volume of the waste stream, all put coal ash in the regulatory spotlight. After decades of delay, in May 2010, the EPA began accepting comments on two proposed regulatory frameworks to set federal standards for coal ash disposal under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The EPA proposed to regulate the ash either under Subtitle C or under less stringent Subtitle D. Regulating ash under Subtitle C would appropriately classify the toxic ash as a hazardous waste, while under Subtitle D it would be treated as household garbage with oversight provided by state agencies and enforcement provided through citizen lawsuits. Even before state budgets were slashed across the country, regulating this carcinogenic ash under federally enforceable Subtitle C, instead of industry’s ‘self-implementing’ Subtitle D, was the obvious responsible course of action. Neither option prevents or regulates ‘beneficial use ’ - the recycling of coal ash. Coal ash recycling comes in several forms including adding it into concrete, cement, and wallboard thereby eventually constructing a built environment out of the ash, spreading it onto roads for traction, dumping it on agricultural land, and using it as fill material at construction sites. The American Coal Ash Association reported that 44 percent of coal ash is recycled in one of these forms, making the regulatory loophole all the more significant.
The EPA has received an outpouring of 450,000 public comments on the regulations. In early March 2011 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated that the decision and issuance of federal ash regulations would be pushed off into 2012.