The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just announced new regulations governing the disposal of coal ash, which is the mess of black solids that coal leaves behind after it’s burned. Despite the fact that coal ash contains heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead, that pose a known danger to human and ecological health, energy companies regularly bury it in unlined pits near water sources. Disasters often result. (Who could have guessed?) A 2008 dam breach in Kingston, Tennessee, covered hundreds of acres in wet coal ash. In February this year, a spill released more than 30,000 tons of the stuff into North Carolina’s Dan River.
The new regulations are one very small step forward, since many states have virtually no rules governing coal ash disposal. The content of the EPA’s announcement, however, is a disappointment for most environmental advocates, because it classifies the substance as regular garbage instead of toxic waste. To understand why that’s a bad thing, you need a coal ash primer.
How much of this stuff is out there?
Coal-fired plants in the United States generate about 140 million tons of coal ash per year. It is the nation’s second largest waste stream, behind ordinary household trash.
Where does it all go?
The worst disposal method is to dump the coal ash into an unlined pit next to the power plant. More than 1,000 pits and ponds (sometimes coal ash is stored as a wet slurry) are currently accepting coal ash in the United States, and there are hundreds more pits that are already full. (These capped-off holes carry the oddly nostalgic title of “legacy sites.”)
The landfills leak regularly. According to the nonprofit Earthjustice, coal ash leaks or spills have contaminated rivers or groundwater 208 times—that we know of. Many more undocumented cases probably exist, since a large number of legacy sites are completely unmonitored.
Some states require utilities to place one or two levels of lining in the pits to prevent leaching and leakage into waterways. That’s a major improvement, but it’s still not foolproof. Wisconsin has the nation’s best regulations, yet the state’s Sierra Club chapter has raised questions about high levels of heavy metals in several drinking wells located near coal ash disposal sites.
Recycling is by far the best option. When you mix coal ash with other substances, the heavy metals can be rendered harmless to humans.
“Think of table salt, sodium chloride,” says Scott Slesinger, legislative director at NRDC (which publishes Earthwire). “Pure sodium is too dangerous to hold in your hands. But, mixed with chlorine, it’s safe enough to eat. You can do the same thing with the heavy metals in coal ash.”
The process is called encapsulation, and it enables recyclers to put the otherwise harmful waste into building materials. For instance, concrete and wallboard made with coal ash are stronger and more durable than those made from virgin materials.
Wait, if this stuff is recyclable, why are we burying it next to waterways?
Mostly because of money. Coal ash is heavy and expensive to transport, so it’s cheaper for many energy companies to simply dump it into a nearby hole than to truck it off to the recycler.
Other firms try to look responsible by engaging in phony recycling. They bury the coal ash in mining sites to offset the acidic pH of the mines. Balancing pH by adding toxic metals isn’t optimal from a safety perspective—but at least it gets the ash out of the hands of the utility company. Utilities also market it for roadside dust control, or put it underneath road pavement. The problem with all these methods is that the heavy metals can still find their way into drinking water.
In 2007, Dominion Power delivered 1.5 million tons of ash to a golf club in Chesapeake, Virginia, to build up the course’s hills. This was a terrible idea. Within a year, the local newspaper reported that the soil cap had eroded, exposing golfers to the ash. Subsequent groundwater testing revealed unsafe levels of arsenic, beryllium, chromium, and lead—a quadruple bogey of toxic materials.
OK, then why haven’t state governments mandated recycling?
Utility companies are among the top political donors in many states, so they pretty much get what they want. Duke Energy, which was responsible for last year’s spill in the Dan River, was North Carolina’s second largest political donor in the 2014 election cycle. (That concerns federal money. State-specific utility donation data, which are hard to come by, might be even more lopsided.) Energy giant Southern Company was one of the top donors in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Dominion Resources is among Virginia’s top contributors. Exelon is a major political donor in Illinois. I could go on.
Why has it taken so long for the federal government to intervene?
Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. A federal statute called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—abbreviated RCRA and pronounced “Rick-Ra”—governs the disposal of hazardous waste. The regulations offer a bunch of tests to determine whether a material is hazardous, and people have been arguing over which one applies to coal ash. The utility industry favors the test used for materials that are typically placed into ordinary landfills, under which coal ash has a chance of not being defined as hazardous waste. Environmental advocates favor a test that reflects the fact that coal ash isn’t disposed of in ordinary landfills, but in giant holes in the ground. That test would classify the material as hazardous waste.
That’s the technical answer, but there’s more. Utilities argue that classifying coal ash as hazardous will harm the recycling industry, because the public won’t want to buy concrete or wallboard containing toxic waste. Whether the EPA is allowed to consider this factor is unclear, but either way, environmentalists say that argument is wrong. Consumers don’t seem to care one way or another. Sales of virgin and coal ash concrete move basically in parallel to each other, even in the aftermath of highly publicized spills like the one in Tennessee in 2008. If people were truly afraid of coal ash concrete, those disasters should have given virgin concrete a sales bump.
These arguments would have probably continued ad infinitum. The only reason the EPA finally acted is because a federal court ordered them to. The agency’s deadline was today.
Do the new EPA rules solve the problem?
Not nearly. If the EPA had decided to classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, the federal government would be required to develop a cradle-to-grave management program for dealing with the material. The disposal practices of every coal-fired plant would have come under federal scrutiny. But now that the agency chose to classify coal ash as ordinary garbage, the responsibility will still fall to the states to develop management plans.
The EPA set a floor beneath which the states are not allowed to fall, but it’s a pretty low floor. Each state is supposed to develop a coal ash management plan subject to EPA approval. Under the federal rules, liners will be mandatory in new ash ponds and pits. Companies will be required to increase monitoring of coal ash sites and eventually publish the data. There will be rules to control “fugitive dust”—coal ash that blows away from the pits. This is a major problem for waterways in the West, many of which run through tribal lands.
It sounds encouraging, but accidents will continue despite the rule. Here’s the biggest problem: Contrary to the EPA's claims, it’s virtually certain that several coal-dependent states will not bother to develop coal ash management plans, and there’s nothing the agency can do about it. States have already proven beyond reasonable doubt that they will not stand up to utility companies, no matter how much ash they spill.
That leaves it to citizens to enforce the rules through lawsuits. Expecting nearby homeowners to monitor the disposal sites and demand enforcement is unrealistic. The data is impossible to interpret for most communities, and many coal ash pits are built in impoverished areas. In addition, many of the pits that leaked or otherwise failed in the past were intensely monitored. Duke Energy’s own analyst had been warning about the Dan River site for years before it broke.
As for legacy sites—those abandoned coal ash pits and ponds that dot the landscape—companies aren’t obligated to reinforce them until a leak has already begun.
The new rules are basically a quarter-measure to improve coal ash management. But hey, here’s a really good idea to solve this problem: Stop burning so much coal.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.