Questioning Coal Ash Deregulation

By Tenenbaum, David J. | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Questioning Coal Ash Deregulation


Tenenbaum, David J., Environmental Health Perspectives


Each year, 115 million tons of coal combustion products (CCPs) are produced in the United States, 90% of them by electric utilities. CCPs are mainly ash, usually mixed with wastes from pollution control scrubbers (consisting i of particulate matter and neutralizing lime), coal piles, and other sources. In 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted pure coal ash from Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which regulates disposal of hazardous waste. On 22 May 2000, the EPA extended the exemption to include coal ash mixed with other materials such as scrubber waste.

In issuing the 2000 exemption, the EPA cited a paucity of documented environmental damage, and the danger that a hazardous waste designation would stigmatize a valuable recyclable material. The EPA also cited a gradual improvement in disposal practices.

About 30% of CCPs are recycled (primarily into cement or wallboard products) or worked into farmland to improve the soil. The rest is placed in surface impoundments (large ponds into which the liquefied waste is pumped), landfills, or depleted strip mines. As of 1995, 57% of all CCP landfills had liners to protect ground-water, and 75% of new units were lined. However, liners are present in only 26% of all surface impoundments and 60% of new units. While the nature and level of contamination depends on the coal's chemistry as well as burning and disposal practices, CCPs may contain small amounts of such toxic heavy metals as arsenic, cadmium, selenium, copper, and mercury.

Industry is pleased with the federal exemption, saying that CCPs are regulated effectively by individual states. Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for shareholder-owned electric utilities, says, "We were generally supportive of the EPA decision overall.... In spite of efforts by some in the environmental community to scare the public, scientific research shows that [CCP disposal is] being managed properly." The EPA, he adds, rejected further regulation as "duplicative of what states are already doing, and significantly in excess of what's needed to protect the public health."

Rules vary by state, however, and even states with a good reputation for environmental enforcement have experienced problems. For example, the Wisconsin Electric Power Company Highway 59 Ash Landfill in Wisconsin has polluted groundwater, says Mike Zillmer, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hydrogeologist, and has contaminated eight private wells with boron, sulfates, and molybdenum. …

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