Early in the morning of December 22nd, 2008, disruption of an earthen containment wall at a coal-fired power plant operated by TVA dumped 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and neighboring communities in Roane County, Tennessee. The human and environmental consequences of this disaster have magnified the risks inherent at every point in the cycle of coal—from extraction to disposal of coal combustion waste—and brought the hazards of coal ash into the national energy conversation.
Characteristics of Coal Ash
Because coal-fired plants buy coal from different mines and often blend coal or co-fire coal with other material to stay within
emission guidelines, it’s hard for citizens to know exactly what’s in any particular pile of coal ash.
Coal, and the rocks that sandwich coal seams, contain a number of substances that can contaminate land, air and water. Many of these elements—for example, mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, selenium, and beryllium—are released when raw coal is extracted, washed and processed for burning at power plants. Some of these substances are emitted through smokestacks as coal is burned but are still present in various amounts in fuel that is never fully consumed during combustion.
This fly ash may continue to release toxic material as it undergoes further physical, chemical or biological transformations during recycling or storage. In addition to heavy metals, fly ash contains silica crystals. As the coal ash dries out, any uncontained silica and other contaminants may become airborne in the immediate area and drift downwind following natural trajectories.
Health Risks and Regulatory Issues
Every year, coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce about 131 million tons of toxic coal ash and other combustion wastes that pile up in unlined ponds and pits like the one that failed at the Kingston plant. Unfortunately, there is very little regulation of this coal ash, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined more than five years ago to be a hazardous waste requiring safe standards for disposal.
Situations in which ground water and surface water have been contaminated by coal ash have more than doubled since the EPA published its regulatory determination on fossil fuel combustion wastes in 2000. A draft EPA study in 2007 documented the highest cancer risks from surface impoundments, but also found unacceptable health risks from clay-lined coal combustion waste landfills leaking arsenic into groundwater. According to the same study, both impoundments and landfills threaten to overwhelm aquatic ecosystems with toxic levels of other heavy metals. The 2007 assessment estimated risks to both human health and aquatic life from surface impoundments and landfills to be well above levels that EPA generally considers acceptable.
Short and Long-term Coal Combustion Waste Organizing
The Kingston disaster has stimulated review of coal combustion wastes and impoundments at many levels of government. People who live near coal waste impoundments want to know what’s in the fly ash and what the risks are for their communities. Grassroots groups will have many short- and long-term opportunities to hold agencies accountable and organize to improve how coal waste is handled.
- We can all work together to demand a complete cleanup and just recovery for people in Roane County, including long-term health and environmental testing and monitoring of pollutants known to exist in fly ash.
- We can demand adequate emergency response plans that incorporate early warning and include all community resources to prevent powerful utilities or coal corporations from co-opting incident command and controlling communications at major disasters.
- As fossil fuel plants continue to be upgraded to reduce pollution, air pollution control technology may transfer even larger quantities of heavy metals into ash, scrubber sludge, or other combustion wastes. These may continue to be dumped into impoundments or landfills that are not designed to contain them safely. Is it time to phase out coal ash impoundments and push for dry storage? What agencies are best equipped and organized to regulate coal ash? Citizens can review proposed legislation and regulatory changes for coal combustion waste disposal to make sure that these questions are addressed and the interests of people and the environment are being served.
- While we focus on specific coal waste issues, we can stay connected to the idea that hazards exist at every link in the chain of coal power. People and communities at the extraction end of the chain will continue to share the risk with people who live near power plants and coal waste disposal for as long as most citizens endorse coal power over clean, sustainable energy sources. In socially just societies, government and industry share risks equally with the people.