Two Year After Spill, EPA Still Debates Whether Coal Ash Is Hazardous

Some seriously nasty toxins, including arsenic, chromium, mercury, and lead, can be found in coal ash, the highly toxic leftovers from burning coal for energy. But even in the wake of 2008’s catastrophic failure of a Tennessee storage pond, which released an ash-laden flood in the path of hundreds of homes, the U.S. EPA is still seriously debating whether to put in stricter regulations.

Currently, the agency is accepting public comments on whether or not it should finally regulate coal ash as the hazardous substance that it obviously is. But before it could do that, the EPA had to quit promoting a permissive coal ash recycling program, which was an obvious conflict of interest as the agency mulls a hazardous designation.

Earlier this month, the EPA took down the web page for an industry partnership program that promoted the reuse of coal ash in products ranging from consumer goods and building materials to soil treatments for farms. On the one hand, recycling makes sense: Coal ash is the nation’s second largest waste stream (right behind the waste generated by coal mining itself, actually.) If we have to do something with all that waste, then some of the recycling options, for instance as a replacement for cement in concrete, are good ways to safely lock away the toxins.

On the other hand, many other reuses make no sense whatsoever and can lead to severe health and environmental problems. For example, coal ash is being used in drywall in people’s homes, and as fill dirt in construction projects, where it can contaminate groundwater.

And just as plenty of soda bottles end up in landfills, not all coal ash gets recycled. Only about 44 percent of the 140 million tons of coal ash we generated 2008 got  reused. Coal burners dumped much of the rest in giant, unlined slurry ponds, where the toxins  can easily leathch into groundwater and local waterways. Back in December 2008, a retaining wall in one of these ponds failed at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Harriman plant, catastrophically releasing as much as 2.6 million cubic yards of ash slurry into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

It’s clear that the EPA needs to act now to regulate the disposal of this truly nasty substance — yet the coal industry is using the cover of “beneficial” recycling uses to argue against a hazardous designation. Coal companies can’t be allowed to foist disposal costs onto the public and pollute our rivers and streams anymore.

In May, the EPA issued two proposals for regulating coal ash — one that would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, and a much looser, non-hazardous waste option. The agency’s choice should be clear, butt after months of closed door negotiations with the coal industry, the agency is soliciting public comments on the two proposals.

You can use this handy petition to submit your own public comment and tell both the EPA and King Coal that Americans refuse to be poisoned by dirty energy any longer.

We need lots of comments submitted to the EPA, so if you only have time to sign one petition, that’s the one to sign. But if you want to do even more to help, you’re in luck.

Predictably, the coal industry’s allies in Congress are fighting back. Senators Brownback and Conrad are trying to pressure the EPA into rejecting federal coal ash disposal standards. You can sign a petition calling on your Senators to oppose any effort to undermine the EPA’s authority.

Photo credit: Wade Payne/Greenpeace

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