For the past eight years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has operated under a partnership pact with the coal industry to market its combustion wastes for consumer, agricultural and industrial uses without investigating the true health and environmental risks. Today, EPA is still actively promoting "beneficial uses" of coal ash and other combustion byproducts in wallboard, kitchen counters, carpet backing and even lipstick and cosmetics.
This EPA/coal industry joint venture is called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership or C2P2. In July, 2010, under pressure from PEER, EPA abruptly suspended the program and, without public announcement, yanked its C2P2 website. Nonetheless, EPA still promotes the reuse of coal ash.
The issue has deeper roots. Back in 2000, under pressure from the coal industry, EPA backed off from its own scientific recommendations that coal combustion wastes (CCW) should be classified as hazardous waste. CCW remains virtually unregulated, despite unquestionably potent toxicity.
Nearly half the recycled CCW is used in concrete and structural fill (in everything from old mines to new golf courses), where the material is supposedly fixed in place. Yet, EPA has conducted no research on what happens when fill materials are broken apart, burned or flooded, nor is it known what happens when products such as carpets are routinely disposed of by burning. Further, EPA's blanket endorsement of CCW reuse fails to acknowledge the unknown risks of using CCWs as feedstock in high temperature cement kilns or wallboard production facilities.
EPA and state toxicologists working with PEER also note that the toxicity of CCW has been significantly underestimated. More sophisticated air pollution controls mean the levels of toxic substances remaining in these wastes are much higher than they were when EPA official estimates were developed.
Huge Hidden Coal Subsidy
EPA promotion of coal wastes generates more than $11 billion each year for the industry, but industry derives immensely greater economic benefit (estimated by the White House at more than $230 billion per year) by avoiding costs it would face if all CCW was treated as hazardous waste as it should be. Further, EPA's own proposed rules for regulating disposal of CCWs acknowledge that EPA is not even aware of all the current consumer uses of CCWs.
As part of a partnership between EPA and the coal industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking farmers to use coal ash to grow their crops. USDA endorses use of coal combustion wastes "for crop production" while acknowledging uncertainty on the extent to which "toxic elements" are absorbed into produce.
Each year, American agriculture annually uses more than 180,000 tons of coal ash and other coal combustion byproducts. There are no federal standards governing agricultural applications of coal ash.
In an April 2, 2009 letter, USDA Agricultural Research Service Deputy Administrator Steven Shafer expressed official "interest" in exploring greater use of coal combustion wastes in crop production but concedes that the "long-term effects...remain a subject of research."