Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an explicit partnership agreement with the coal industry to market its combustion wastes for consumer, agricultural and industrial uses without knowing the true health risks, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, one arm of EPA now is moving to classify coal ash and other combustion byproducts as hazardous waste even as another arm is promoting its use in wallboard, kitchen counters and carpet backing among an array of so-called “beneficial uses”.
Each year, the coal industry generates approximately 125 million tons of wastes from burning coal in the form of fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization gypsum. Nearly half of that total – 50 million tons – is re-used in everything from road construction to (industry claims) tooth paste, despite a growing body of scientific research indicating that these coal combustion wastes (CCW) are toxic and should not be allowed in contact with water or soils, and certainly not in direct contact with humans.
Due to a regulatory retreat in 2000, EPA declined to declare CCW as hazardous waste, a decision the agency is now revisiting following the disastrous spills in December from Tennessee Valley Authority sludge ponds. As a result, CCW is virtually unregulated, despite unquestionably high toxic content.
During the Bush administration, EPA entered into a formal partnership with the coal industry and its various arms, most prominently, the American Coal Ash Association – an arrangement that continues to this day. This joint venture is called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership or C2P2. EPA promotion of coal wastes generates more than $11 billion each year for the industry, but industry derives immensely greater economic benefit by avoiding costs it would face if CCW was treated as hazardous waste.
The dangers of using CCW are illustrated by the Battlefield Golf Club in Chesapeake, Virginia where coal fly ash was applied to contour the course. In a March 30, 2009, report EPA’s consultant found that boron, lead, arsenic, barium and other heavy metals were in danger of leaching off the course and contaminating groundwater, including residential wells. The inspection report concluded that “future migration of metals contained in fly ash remains a potential risk to nearby wells.”
“This is the dirtiest waste that pollution control devices keep out of the atmosphere, while the pollution control agency, EPA, pushes to apply that same waste on agricultural lands, on highways for snow removal and inside kitchens,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This is a classic leap-before-you-look EPA initiative where health and safety questions get asked only after the fact.”
Nearly half the recycled CCW is used in concrete and structural fill, where, it is argued, the material is fixed in place and does not reach the environment. Yet, EPA has conducted no research on what happens when the materials are broken apart, burned or flooded –events where structural integrity is compromised. Meanwhile, other products, such as carpets, are routinely disposed of by burning.
EPA and state toxicologists are also raising concerns that the toxicity of CCW has been significantly underestimated and, due to more sophisticated pollution controls, the toxic levels of these wastes are substantially higher than they were 30 years ago when EPA official estimates were developed.
“Ironically, ‘green’ rating systems give extra credit for using coal wastes that may become a later source of pollution,” Ruch added. “EPA should immediately halt this marketing program until it has set toxicity standards supported by peer reviewed research.”