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

Coal Byproduct, Hazardous Waste?

Air Date: Week of

A large coal-fired power plant. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, Thewritingzone)

The EPA is deciding if coal fly ash—the byproduct of combustion—should be considered hazardous waste. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks to reporter Chase Purdy from the Ledger newspaper in Florida about how this new designation would impact how municipalities store fly ash waste.


GELLERMAN: It's Living On Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. It was the largest release of toxic fly ash in U.S. history. Three years ago, just three days before Christmas in the middle of the night, a giant holding pond ruptured in Kingston, Tennessee.

A billion gallons of water mixed with fly ash surged into nearby rivers, submerging 300 acres six feet deep. The fly ash came from the Tennessee Valley Authority's nearby coal-fired power plant. Fly ash is one of the most heavily produced and unregulated energy wastes. In the United States there are 347 fly ash pits and federal investigators say nearly 1 in 3 is in poor condition.

The EPA has proposed tough new rules for fly ash and has received almost half a million responses from the public, but House Republicans want to prevent the rules from taking effect. If fly ash was regulated, it would have a big impact on places like Lakeland, Florida where a giant mountain of the stuff has been growing for years. Reporter Chase Purdy has written about it for The Ledger newspaper.

PURDY: You know, going out there is very what I would imagine to be moon-like. It’s mostly just sort of gray ash that’s been mixed with another material - it kind of gives it a sort of plastic-y sort of feel. It is a sizeable mound. It’s probably not unlike the moon.

GELLERMAN: How much fly ash is there?

PURDY: It’s tough to be exact. There are definitely more than 100 thousand tons of fly ash in that pile alone.

GELLERMAN: How many piles are there?

PURDY: This is the second one. The first one is not quite as big. And then a third one would be just a few years down the road once they cap this second pile.

GELLERMAN: So, all this fly ash is coming from the local electric plant there.

PURDY: Right. Basically the byproduct of coal combustion is this fly ash. You can do a few things with fly ash. One is you can sell it for beneficial use, which was great for the housing market down here because it can be used for concrete. A lot of construction companies will use fly ash for building houses and other projects. What you don’t sell, they store it, and that’s what the mound is.

GELLERMAN: Well the housing boom has gone bust. Do you still have a market for fly ash?

PURDY: You know they make a small amount of money off it now, of course that number has dropped tremendously. Basically, in 2010 they made 60 thousand dollars selling fly ash, but back in fiscal year 2008, they did make more than a million.

GELLERMAN: It does have lead in it. It’s got mercury. It's got some other heavy metals in there…

PURDY: Right, there are all types of different metals that are in coal ash, and that is sort of the major concern by activist groups like Earthjustice and even the EPA… if that were to get into drinking water, and people were to consume it, there is the possibility that it could lead to certain medical issues including cancer, brain damage, heart problems, all sorts of things.

GELLERMAN: So, no fears that it might spill into your Lakeland Lake?

Reporter Chase Purdy. (Photo: Chase Purdy)

PURDY: No, no one is really concerned about that, and the electric company down here, they do keep pretty close tabs on where the runoff is going and how much runoff there is. There are standards that they have to meet before, essentially, constructing these giant mountains.

GELLERMAN: Well, the EPA wants to rename this stuff. The want to call it hazardous waste.

PURDY: Exactly. Basically fly is one of the largest - I think it’s the second largest industrial waste stream in the country today - and to ensure that it’s safely disposed of, they want to sort of tackle fly ash using this piece of legislation called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

And, there are two options: One would be to allow the states to oversee how they dispose of fly ash, and the other option - which is the more contentious one - would be that states would have to adopt the EPA standards for handling hazardous wastes. You store hazardous waste in hazardous waste landfills.

For Florida, that’s a problem, because our state statute says very specifically because of our water table and our elevation, that we cannot have hazardous waste landfills, which would mean, shipping out these tons and tons of ash that we accumulate.

GELLERMAN: So, where would you send it?

PURDY: Well, the closest hazardous waste landfill is up in this tiny little town in Alabama called Emile. And, they have actually up there, the country’s largest hazardous waste landfill. Talking to city officials here, that’s a 1,200 mile round trip. It would have to go by truck everyday.

GELLERMAN: Boy, that would be costly too!

PURDY: Basically, it would cost about five million dollars extra a year to ship this stuff out.

GELLERMAN: And who would pay?

PURDY: Taxpayers.


PURDY: Serious.

GELLERMAN: So, what do the residents of Lakeland think about having this giant mound of fly ash in their backyard, basically?

PURDY: You know, it’s a big mountain that’s viewable if you drive by Lake Parker. And, I think people have been kind of curious about what it is, but it hasn’t really sparked any serious concerns that would have citizens up in arms, at least not at this point.

GELLERMAN: Do you think they’d be up in arms if they had to pay another five million dollars?

PURDY: (Laughs). I think we have yet to see that.

GELLERMAN: So, what happens now?

PURDY: Well, basically the next is just sort of a waiting game. There are a few things that are happening. One is waiting for the EPA to finish going through the many, many public comments that they have received. And then also the discussion has already started in Washington.

The Republicans in the House of Representatives have already put forward some legislation that would essentially pull some of the teeth from the EPA’s ability to regulate the disposal of coal ash, and that passed the House and has moved on to the Senate where it is currently in committee.

The Obama administration has already become involved - they sent along a statement essentially to the Senate asking senators to quash the measure. So, still being discussed up in Washington.

GELLERMAN: Well, Chase it was good talking with you. Thank you so very much.

PURDY: Thanks so much for having me.

GELLERMAN: Chase Purdy is a reporter with The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.



Read Purdy’s article, “Lakeland Officials Nervous About Financial Fallout From Fly Ash Pile”


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