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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coal Ash Controversy

Air Date: Week of

The collapse of a wall on a retention pond at the Kingston power plant in Tennessee caused more than a billion gallons of coal combustion waste to flood 400 acres around the plant. Up to 10 homes were flooded, some lifted completely of their foundations. (Photo: The Knoxville News Sentinel © 2008)

The EPA has just released new requirements on the containment of coal ash. The agency promised to address the issue after a retention wall failed at the Kingston coal-fired power plant in Tennessee, spilling more than a billion gallons of arsenic and mercury laden slurry into the nearby river. But a ruling on the toxicity of coal ash is long overdue. In conversation with host Jeff Young, Thomas Adams of the American Coal Ash Association argues that a tough ruling would hinder the safe re-use of coal ash. But Wake Forest University Professor Dennis Lemly says EPA should designate coal ash a hazardous substance.


YOUNG: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is telling electric utility companies to dispose of coal ash more safely. Most of the waste from burning coal in power plants is dumped in landfills or behind the dams of slurry ponds, called impoundments, with little government oversight.

About a year ago one of those dams in Tennessee burst, spilling a billion gallons of waste into the Emory River. At the time, local resident Sarah McCoin described the sludge that inundated dozens of homes close to the power plant.

MCCOIN: Charcoal-gray, gooey, nasty, gummy, it looks like the inside of a volcano that has just been active, and it goes as far as the eye can see. It's a very sick feeling; it certainly brings a tear to your eye. And then obviously I’m worried about my health - my health, my family's health, the health of my friends and neighbors.

YOUNG: In the wake of the spill EPA promised action. Well, this month EPA told 22 power plants to strengthen their ash impoundments to avoid further spills. But EPA still has to decide how to regulate the ash itself.

The agency’s self imposed deadline for new rules passed a month ago and White House officials are still debating. Coal ash often contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxics. That’s why many scientists urge EPA to declare coal ash a hazardous material. Some industry groups say that could make it harder to recycle the ash. We’ll hear from both, starting with Thomas Adams. He’s Executive Director of the American Coal Ash Association, whose members turn ash into useful products.

ADAMS: Well, probably the marquee product would be fly ash, which is used in concrete as a partial supplement replacement for Portland cement, gives us a dramatic increase in durability of concrete. Another one that is all around us is a material called boiler slag, which is used as the grit in shingles for roofing shingles – approximately 80 percent of the residential roofs in this country use shingles which incorporate boiler slag.

Thomas Adams is Executive Director of The American Coal Ash Association. (Courtesy of the American Coal Ash Association)

YOUNG: The production of cement is pretty energy intensive, and they produce a lot of CO2 emissions. If you’re stretching out the cement, improving it with this ash, are you saving energy and reducing emissions, as well?

ADAMS: Absolutely. If you look at the use of fly ash as a partial replacement for Portland cement, you’re looking at a ratio of about nine tenths of a ton of CO2 avoidance for every ton of cement reduction that you can identify.

YOUNG: And how much coal ash gets used this way?

ADAMS: Annually, in our most recent survey, we had 136 million tons of coal ash produced, of which 44 percent was recycled into a variety of different applications.

YOUNG: So that’s 44 percent of the total coal ash produced in the country?

ADAMS: Yes. That’s by electric-fired coal utilities. There are other ash producers, which come from industrial boilers, which include private industry that has their own boiler for utility purposes on their own sites, and universities and other institutions like that. That’s not included in that 136 million tons.

YOUNG: So, now, what is your concern about the pending regulatory decision on how to handle coal ash?

ADAMS: We’re focusing on trying to keep this success story of recycling this material moving forward and not have it go backwards by any stigmatization of this material as being hazardous. Certainly, when we have a choice of selecting products as consumers, if we take a look at a hazardous product as identified by some label by the federal government, versus a non-hazardous label, we certainly want to select a not hazardous label as consumers would.

And we feel that if we have a hazardous determination of any kind come out of EPA, that that stigma will be attached to these products and cause the recycling effort to retreat, and in some cases almost stop, and we’ve seen market impact already that some people are moving in that direction.

YOUNG: However, I mean, don’t we recycle and reuse a lot of things that are rightly and officially considered toxic? I mean, I just look at my car and I think about the reuse of old batteries, recycling/reuse of motor oil – these are things that contain substances that are hazardous if improperly disposed of, but that doesn’t keep us from having a robust system for reuse and recycling.

ADAMS: Absolutely, and that’s – those are success stories by themselves. But if you look the used oil example, the used oil is reprocessed and then incorporated again into another finished product, which is primarily used in an industrial setting. Whereas our product is not reprocessed and is put into a commercial/residential setting by and large, and the public is very, very close to that.

YOUNG: But aren’t you essentially telling people to ignore the fact here? I mean ash is toxic.

ADAMS: If it’s mismanaged it can have some effect on health and environment. The key point to remember is these materials are harmful when there’s an opportunity for ingestion. If we’re putting them into an environment, which does not allow ingestion or has a very low probability of ingestion then you can safely assume that we’re not really dealing with a dangerous situation.

YOUNG: Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, thanks.

ADAMS: Thank you for having me.

The collapse of a wall on a retention pond at the Kingston power plant in Tennessee caused more than a billion gallons of coal combustion waste to flood 400 acres around the plant. Up to 10 homes were flooded, some lifted completely of their foundations. (Photo: The Knoxville News Sentinel © 2008)

YOUNG: Well, Mr. Adams is at odds with some scientists who have studied coal ash disposal sites for decades. Wake Forest University research biology professor Dennis Lemly says recycling ash is a fine idea, but it’s not really the point here. Lemly says the pending decision on how to regulate coal ash should be driven by data. He and his colleagues wrote to the White House to set the record straight about coal ash toxicity.

LEMLY: With respect to the health of fish and wildlife there's no question that coal combustion waste is a highly hazardous substance. The Gibson coal plant in Indiana polluted an entire wildlife refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now involved in a major clean up of that site. The Savannah River site in South Carolina, it contaminated wetlands and deformed amphibians for miles downstream. The coal strip plant in Montana and many other facilities have contaminated offsite ground water in addition to surface water. And experience shows that really the only way to effectively control this material is to place it with a hazardous waste designation.

YOUNG: What are the implications for human health?

LEMLY: Well, in terms of the leaching of these materials into groundwater and contamination of public water supplies there are several well-known cases of that that have taken place, where the electric utilities have had to bring in bottled water and provide alternative water supplies for local residents. So, we’re seeing that there are very clear case examples of situations where human health has been directly impacted by the disposal of these wastes.

YOUNG: Give us a sense of the scale of the waste that we’re talking about?

LEMLY: Well, it is a national issue. For example, across the country there are literally hundreds of sites that are at least active at this point. And there’s several inactive sites, as well. So, if you look at the total number of coal combustion disposal sites across the country, it’s well over 2,000.

YOUNG: So this stuff is highly hazardous in your opinion, there are these sites all over the country - surely we’re regulating this stuff, right?

LEMLY: The current regulations are kind of a patchwork. They’re left primarily up to the states and the level of control for these materials and the way they’re disposed is highly variable from state to state. For example, there are a couple states – for example California--that require more stringent regulations, many other states have very lax rules in terms of how materials can be disposed and what requirements there are for liners and leachate collection, and that kind of thing. So it is really a patchwork and that’s one reason why there’s a need for federal oversight because the state regulations are so variable and so inadequate in many cases.

Dr. A. Dennis Lemly is Research Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University. (Courtesy of Wake Forest University)

YOUNG: And the big argument here though, let’s face it, is cost. Isn’t it going to end up simply costing too much to do the kind of protective measures you’re recommending here?

LEMLY: Well, in fact, if you look at the cost, I would maintain that the cost of the un-regulation that exists now is out of control and even more expensive than the cost of a hazardous waste designation and disposal of the material under that type of requirement.

For example, just a year ago the ash spill at the TBA Kingston plant – clean up costs for that one episode alone is going to be over a billion dollars. And we can look at other locations where clean up costs are in the millions for every single case of contamination. So if you look at it on a national scale over a period of time, the total cost of no action and the clean up associated with that is going to be much greater than the cost of a hazardous waste designation, and proper management and prevention of future contamination problems and clean up costs.

YOUNG: Do you see this as a test of the Obama administration’s commitment to science?

LEMLY: Oh, I think it is. I think it’s very clearly going to be perhaps a test case in terms of using science to guide policy. Because the science is there, it’s very clear, it’s not ambiguous, it’s been there starting 30 years ago – we have compiled a tremendous case-by-case information base and database on which to base the decision, the policy decision.

YOUNG: Wake Forest University biology professor, Dennis Lemly, thanks very much.

LEMLY: You’re welcome and thank you very much for having me.

YOUNG: And you can learn more about coal ash and read EPA’s assessment of where the most potentially hazardous impoundments are at our website l-o-e dot org.



Tennessee Valley Authority on the Kingston Plant

American Coal Ash Association

Dr. Lemly’s Letter to EPA and OMB


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