8 November 2010
The Persistent Trouble with Coal Ash
Posted by John Freeland
504-acre ash disposal ponds in Lake Erie, near Bay View Power Plant, Toledo.
While a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire over twenty years ago, I attended an evening lecture by a hydrologist visiting from what was then still the Soviet Union. Early in his talk about groundwater, he said there was an old saying that “to make something clean, you have to make something else dirty.”
Thinking about that, it’s not always true, is it? Pasteurization is an exception to that “rule” as is chemical reformulation that takes a hazardous material and reacts it with something else to create less troublesome products: for example, treating acid mine drainage with neutralizing agents. But it’s true a lot of the time, like when coal-fired power plants are equipped to emit less air pollution.
Before cleaner air standards, power companies used to broadcast smoke stack emissions over the countryside. Under pressure to reduce smoke and soot, an eastern power company added spray scrubbers to reduce air pollution and ended up dumping the wash water in the Monongahela River.
Of the 130 million tons of coal ash produced each year in the United States, about 40 percent is recycled for beneficial uses, like making concrete or road pavement, and the rest ends up in storage ponds or landfills. In 2008, a tragic failure occurred in Tennessee when a 40-acre coal ash lagoon ruptured and sent 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into the Clinch and Emory Rivers. The toxicity of the ash is a topic of debate.
The coal industry is fighting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over whether or not to regulate ash as a hazardous material or like household trash. Either way, the coal companies will likely need to put liners under the ash ponds to prevent leaching of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic constituents into the groundwater. If the ash is considered non-hazardous, the bulk of the regulation will be done at the state level; if hazardous, it will be regulated by the federal government.
As we hear assurances of “clean coal” technology, we should all remember that burning coal creates a potentially harmful residue. If it’s scrubbed out of the air where does it go? It looks pretty clear that, when it comes to coal ash, making the air clean means making the land and water dirty.
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Colette Breshears and Jess Drake, Chris Rowan. Chris Rowan said: The Persistent Trouble with Coal Ash http://bit.ly/cJyNes […]
I like that saying. It remind me of a recent thought- wherever there is light, there is a shadow. Great post 🙂
Hi Amanda: Thanks for “stopping by.” Yes, both sayings have a sort of Zen quality. I’ve added The Dirt on Soil to the Blogroll. Good luck!
Thanks, I’ve added you too! Have fun.
The air may be cleaner (temporarily), but the water, land, human lungs, and other forms of life are definitely dirtier. Coal ash disposal/management/recycling is a hot issue right now, and we all need to act by Friday, Nov 19th, to get coal ash regulated
responsibly! On Friday, the EPA comment window closes and will use the comments submitted to decide between Subtitle C and Subtitle D. Subtitle C is for CLEAN and safe communities and regulations that save money, lives, and environmental integrity. Subtitle D is DIRTY and status quo, basically leaving coal ash less regulated than household trash.
Under Subtitle C, coal ash will be deemed as a ‘special’ material, not explicitly hazardous, but putting it under special consideration for disposal issues. It will still be able to be utilized for beneficial uses, such as being recycled into cement, bowling balls, etc.
Go to EPAcoal.org to comment to the EPA and make your voice heard. The site is really easy to use and won’t take more than a minute of your time. Subtitle C is clearly the way to go- let’s make it happen!
Leanne: Thanks for the note. I think the Subtitle C “special material” for coal ash is appropriate in that the degree of hazard depends on the weathering environment. In an active setting, where is water, oxygen, carbonation, microbial respiration, redox fluctuations, freeze-thaw, wetting-drying cycles, and other weathering factors there is a much better chance that things like arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals would be mobilized. I’m not too worried about the flue gas desulferization products (gypsum) in the sheetrock inside my house.
Sorry to correct you on pasteurization , but heat is added and the production of the heat is the pollutant and as you pointed out “to make something clean, you have to make something else dirty.” , the same applies to this also as most scientists accept.
Everything we do is just a transformation from one form to another and is enabled by money.
This is why I have come to the conclusion of the equation MONEY=ENERGY= CLIMATE CHANGE.and that re-establishment of this linkage has to occur if we are to have any real success in the field of climate change.
Tax Reform in the way of replacing all existing taxes with a simple carbon tax collected at as near source as possible.
This would provide huge tax savings (50-70%) in collection,tax fraud , evasion and simple for all to understand.
This would establish polluting energy at the forefront and make everyone rethink the use of fossil energy in the long term and would really make industry really look for new alternative with a high cost energy to do it with..
A mindset change is essential