EPA: Coal Ash Poses Significant Health Risk

Without a doubt coal is dirty and dangerous. Consider that the nation's power plants spew out 130 million tons of coal combustion waste every year.  Much of this so-called coal ash, which is what's left at the bottom of the smokestacks after coal gets burned to generate electricity, ends up stored in unlined landfills or retention ponds.  

According to an investigation just completed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, large amounts of the potentially toxic pollutants in coal ash -- like mercury and arsenic -- get discharged to waterways or seep into groundwater.  In fact, EPA's report documents cases of fish kills and other wildlife damage caused by power plants releasing coal ash wastewater as part of routine coal-fired plant operations.

More alarming, EPA finds an "increasing amount of evidence" indicating that the contaminated wastewater poses a threat not just to the environment but also to human health.  As the report notes:

"Many of the common pollutants found in coal combustion wastewater (e.g., selenium, mercury, and arsenic) are known to cause environmental harm and can potentially represent a human health risk.

"Pollutants in coal combustion wastewater are of particular concern because they can occur in large quantities (i.e., total pounds) and at high concentrations ...in discharges and leachate to groundwater and surface waters."

We're talking about water pollution from a veritable witch's brew of toxic ash: 

  • Arsenic causes liver poisoning and developmental abnormalities in fish, according to EPA, and is linked to an increased risk of liver and bladder cancer in humans. 
  • Mercury can cause kidney and other damage to humans and wildlife. 
  • Aside from fish kills, selenium exposure can result in reproductive failure and other harm to fish and can damage a person's nervous system.

The cure for these ills?  A good start is EPA fulfilling its pledge to fully regulate coal ash -- and coal sludge from ponds -- as hazardous waste.  This latest investigation is a good sign, along with other steps the agency has taken to expose the extensive problem of coal waste storage around the country. 

But EPA is getting a lot of pressure from the coal industry to let states continue to regulate coal ash in their less stringent, patchwork way.  Please take a moment to tell EPA to do the right thing and set strong standards for coal waste disposal.