Coal ash and other coal combustion wastes are one of the largest waste streams in the United States. Re-use of coal ash has, with active support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency turned into a multi-billion dollar business that provides a huge subsidy to coal-fired power-plants.
Each year, the coal industry generates over 136 million tons of wastes from burning coal in the form of fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization gypsum. Nearly half—60 million tons—are re-used with little or no oversight or analysis of environmental impact in everything from concrete to cosmetics, despite a growing body of scientific research indicating that these coal combustion wastes ? containing arsenic, chromium, selenium, thallium, lead, mercury and other contaminants ? are alarmingly toxic and will reach our waters, air and soil.
The contents of coal combustion wastes are also changing, as improvements to air pollution controls mean more toxics like mercury are removed from the air emissions and will instead leave the power plants in the waste and pollution control residue.
Following the disastrous Tennessee coal sludge spill in December 2008, EPA has belatedly undertaken a weak effort to possibly regulate coal ash going to disposal as a hazardous waste. The main industry concern about regulating coal sludge ponds as hazardous is the “stigmatizing effect” that would have on the growing coal ash market.
For the past eight years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has operated under a partnership pact with the coal industry to market its combustion wastes for consumer, agricultural and industrial uses without investigating the true health and environmental risks. Today, EPA is still actively promoting “beneficial uses” of coal ash and other combustion byproducts in wallboard, kitchen counters, carpet backing and even lipstick and cosmetics.
This EPA/coal industry joint venture is called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership or C2P2. In July, 2010, under pressure from PEER, EPA abruptly suspended the program and, without public announcement, yanked its C2P2 website. Nonetheless, EPA still promotes the reuse of coal ash.
The issue has deeper roots. Back in 2000, under pressure from the coal industry, EPA backed off from its own scientific recommendations that coal combustion wastes (CCW) should be classified as hazardous waste. CCW remains virtually unregulated, despite unquestionably potent toxicity.
Nearly half the recycled CCW is used in concrete and structural fill (in everything from old mines to new golf courses), where the material is supposedly fixed in place. Yet, EPA has conducted no research on what happens when fill materials are broken apart, burned or flooded, nor is it known what happens when products such as carpets are routinely disposed of by burning. Further, EPA’s blanket endorsement of CCW reuse fails to acknowledge the unknown risks of using CCWs as feedstock in high temperature cement kilns or wallboard production facilities.
EPA and state toxicologists working with PEER also note that the toxicity of CCW has been significantly underestimated. More sophisticated air pollution controls mean the levels of toxic substances remaining in these wastes are much higher than they were when EPA official estimates were developed.
Huge Hidden Coal Subsidy
EPA promotion of coal wastes generates more than $11 billion each year for the industry, but industry derives immensely greater economic benefit (estimated by the White House at more than $230 billion per year) by avoiding costs it would face if all CCW was treated as hazardous waste as it should be. Further, EPA’s own proposed rules for regulating disposal of CCWs acknowledge that EPA is not even aware of all the current consumer uses of CCWs.
As part of a partnership between EPA and the coal industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking farmers to use coal ash to grow their crops. USDA endorses use of coal combustion wastes “for crop production” while acknowledging uncertainty on the extent to which “toxic elements” are absorbed into produce.
Each year, American agriculture annually uses more than 180,000 tons of coal ash and other coal combustion byproducts. There are no federal standards governing agricultural applications of coal ash.
In an April 2, 2009 letter, USDA Agricultural Research Service Deputy Administrator Steven Shafer expressed official “interest” in exploring greater use of coal combustion wastes in crop production but concedes that the “long-term effects…remain a subject of research.”
Coal Ash is Everywhere
Consumer Products and Home Uses:
- Kitchen counter tops
- Utensils and Tool Handles
- Picture frames
- Carpet Backing
- Dog houses
- Auto Bodies & Boat Hulls
- Running Tracks
- Bowling Balls
- Flotation Devices
Construction and Building Materials:
- Raw feed for cement clinker (in kiln)
- Cement replacement (in concrete)
- Roofing granules
- Carpet backing
- Binding agent
- Flooring & ceiling tile
- Flowable fill
- Asphalt roads
- Slate-like roof tiles
- Wood-like decking
- Structural insulated housing panels
- House siding & trim
- Fireplace mantles
- Soil modification & stabilization
- Cinder block
- Roofing shingles
- Paints & undercoatings
- Ceiling Tile
- Road base/Sub-base
- Blasting Grit
- Recycled plastic lumber
- Utility poles & crossarms
- Railway sleepers
- Highway sound barriers
- Roofing tiles & panels
- Marine pilings
- Scaffolding, non-catastrophic failure
- Window frames
- Sign posts
- Architectural interiors & exteriors
- Rail road ties
- PVC Pipe
- Vinyl flooring
- Paving stones
- Paints & plastics filler
- Shower Stalls
- Garage doors
- Park benches
- Landscape timbers
- Pallet blocks
- Mail boxes
- Artificial Reef
- Soil amendment & fertilizer
- Dairy feedlot pads
- Cattle Feeders
- Agricultural stakes
- Soil stabilization – stock feed yards
- Recycled drywall soil amendment
Loose Application on Roads, Rivers, and as Fill:
- Dumping on rivers to melt ice
- Land contour & golf course fill
- Structural fills & embankments
- Mining applications/minefill
- Snow & ice traction on roads and parking lots