What is coal ash? Simply put, coal ash is the waste product of combusted or burned coal.
Coal ash contains some the deadliest toxic metals, which include: arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium. Other toxic metals in coal ash are: aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc.
The toxins in coal ash can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans, as well as harm and kill wildlife. This is especially true for fish and aquatic life. However, water isn’t the only health danger. Inhalation of airborne particles also poses serious health risks, such as lung disease and respiratory distress. Living next to disposal sites increase health risks, especially if these sites are comprised of unlined wet ash ponds and your drinking water comes from a well. Other known illnesses from exposure to coal ash include, heart damage, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, nervous system impacts, cognitive deficits, developmental delays, and behavioral problems.
While major spills have been a cause for concern across the country, the real problem is toxic pollution from disposal sites. How coal ash escapes happen in different ways.
How is Coal Ash Disposed? There are three ways in which coal ash is disposed. One way is in landfills, if the ash is dry. A second way is mixed in with water and stored in surface impoundments or ponds. The third way is by recycling.
Ponds, generally lined with clay, allows toxins to leach into the groundwater. While some ponds do have composite liners, which offers the safest protection, these too have a finite lifespan. Some, however, do not have any liners at all, their walls comprised only of the native soils. Both ponds and landfills are responsible for the discharge of coal ash contaminated water directly into surface water.
When the toxins leach or dissolve directly into the water, they contaminate the underground aquifers and surface waters such as rivers and streams. These contaminates are consumed when we eat the fish exposed to this same water or coal ash sediment. Alternatively, the coal ash pollutants also travel through air as fine particles or dust from erosion, runoff, or settling.
What is leaching? Leaching is the process by which the toxins from coal ash dissolve in water and permeate through the earth. Leaching releases toxic substances into the eco-system for decades. This exposes people to drinking water at levels significantly above what is considered safe.
There are many ways that water, and its inhabitants, become contaminated by coal ash. Runoff, erosion, airborne particles, polluted groundwater migrating into surface waters, direct discharge from heavy precipitation or flooding, and pond water or landfill leachate from pipes. Fish absorb the toxic water and sediment through their gills and by eating contaminated food sources, ultimately passing these pollutants up the food chain.
When ponds dry, the coal ash disperses through air. Landfills are often not covered or capped, which result in blowing ash. When coal ash is used for fill or on agricultural fields, it can blow, erode, or travel over land or surface waters. Fugitive Dust, the windblown particles from dry disposal, arise when coal waste is loaded and unloaded, transported, or vehicles travel through disposal sites and nearby communities. The coal ash is thereby spread and compacted.
Since coal ash is also dangerous when inhaled, fugitive dust is a serious health concern. It affects the lung and bronchi. Fine particulate matter will lodge deep within the lungs, where they affect the lining and cause inflammation, alter immunological mechanisms, and increase the risk of cardiopulmonary diseases. They may even pass through the lungs into the blood stream, triggering asthma attacks and increasing mortality rates.
Have you been exposed to coal ash? Since approximately 40 percent of coal ash is recycled in engineering, manufacturing, agricultural, and applications, it’s possible. It’s used to make concrete, as an aggregate in road construction, a substitute for mined gypsum in agricultural soil amendments and wall-board. It is used in structural fills and road construction, spread on snowy roads, and school running tracks.
Why is it recycled? The sale of coal ash generates income and the utilities and industries avoid the cost of disposal.
Scientific studies on coal ash show substantial risk to wildlife, specifically aquatic and semi-aquatic organisms. The impacts include, physical deformities in fish and amphibians, the elimination of entire populations, physical abnormalities, and the influence of critical behaviors like feeding, swimming speed, and predator-avoidance reflexes. Since coal ash toxins build up in an animal’s organs, they can negatively influence their reproductive rates. Selenium, just one coal ash toxin, has a devastating impact on fish populations. It bio-accumulates in fish until it is 5,000 times as concentrated in their bodies as the surrounding waters. This causes anemia, heart, liver, breathing problems, and deformities. Selenium, which concentrates in the yolk of developing embryos, stunts their development and causes organ abnormities in larval fish and contributes to the death of the affected fish and reproductive failure of local populations.
In 2014, President Obama passed the EPA Coal Combustion Residual Rule, the first and only federal coal ash rule. The problem? It placed coal ash under Subtitle D, which designated it as solid waste, instead of hazardous waste. Subtitle D carries less disposal requirements. The EPA does not even require states to develop a solid waste management plan. Furthermore, this new law does not require clean-up or closing of abandoned coal ash ponds. There is also no real, direct federal authority or direct state enforcement. Instead it is enforced primarily through citizen lawsuits. This is not enough.
Total Remediation Solutions uses its chemical, TS1, to remove the CO2 and other emissions. Mercury is the exception. TS1 can be reused many times. When depleted, it can be used for other purposes, such as drywall, building materials, or converted to organic fertilizer. The process produces a near zero carbon footprint.
Physicians for Social Responsibility. Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to Our Health and Environment. September 2010, http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/coal-ash.pdf.
UtilityDIVE. Two years after EPA’s coal ash rule, progress depends on states. May 24, 2016, http://www.utilitydive.com/news/two-years-after-epas-coal-ash-rule-progress-depends-on-states/419672/.
TriplePundit. EPA’s Historic Coal Ash Disposal Rule Not Enough, Watchdogs Say. December 22, 2014, http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/12/epas-historic-coal-ash-disposal-rule-not-enough-watchdogs-say/.