Last fall, a major coal ash spill occurred when a retention bluff eroded at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Wisconsin, dumping toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan. Coal ash, which contains mercury, lead and other pollutants, can contaminate lakes and rivers and pollute the water, making it unsafe for consumption as well as harming wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is attempting to regulate coal ash so that future spills do not occur and harm our country’s water supply, but just before the spill occurred, the House of Representatives voted not to allow the EPA to regulate coal ash disposal and management on a federal level.
Coal ash, also sometimes referred to as Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR), is a solid waste byproduct of coal-powered electricity plants. Coal ash contains mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead, which, when leached into the groundwater, contribute to serious health issues, including cancer.
Currently, there is no federal program for the management and disposal of coal ash, but the EPA has proposed two options for imposing federal regulations on the toxic substance. The agency is trying to establish federal regulations regarding the disposal of coal ash, which is commonly disposed of either in a landfill or in a retention area on the site of the coal plant. In the United States, 56 percent of coal ash is disposed of in landfills and retention areas owned by electric companies, while 37 percent is reused for beneficial purposes. 136 million tons of coal ash are produced annually in the U.S.
The EPA is proposing that all coal ash retention facilities be covered with liners to prevent coal ash from seeping into the groundwater, along with water quality monitoring and mandatory corrective action if water contamination occurs. If implemented, the EPA’s rules would protect groundwater from being contaminated by the pollutants in coal ash, prevent loss of life and property from future coal ash spills, save money that would be spent on cleanup efforts for potential spills, and protect public health and the environment. Some reports predict that regulating coal ash could create up to 28,000 domestic jobs.
While coal ash is filled with toxic pollutants, it also contains minerals that can be safely recycled and reused. Coal plants can reuse discarded coal ash to save natural resources, and used coal ash can be mixed with other products to form building materials, such as bricks. The EPA states that “Environmental benefits from these types of uses include greenhouse gas reduction, energy conservation, reduction in land disposal, and reduction in the need to mine/process virgin materials. We have no data showing that encapsulated uses pose a problem for human health or the environment.” State governments are responsible for regulating the reuse of coal ash for beneficial purposes.
This issue first came into public light in 2008, after a coal ash spill in Tennessee that required millions of dollars’ worth of cleanup efforts, polluted the environment and forced the displacement of nearby residents. Now, as the EPA tries to stand up to coal plants and protect public health and the environment, they need support for their cause.
A petition started by the Sierra Club addresses EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, saying, “This spill has shown us — again — why the status quo is not good enough. We need the EPA to finalize the strong protections against coal ash that Americans need.” The petition encourages the EPA to keep pushing for federal regulations against coal ash, and commends the agency on its efforts thus far. To voice your support for the EPA’s proposed federal regulations on coal ash, visit thepetitionsite.com and add your own comments to the Sierra Club’s letter.
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