Spiking Mercury Levels in Coal Ash Pose New Risks
Tougher Pollution Controls Multiply Toxic Potency of Coal Combustion Wastes
Washington, DC — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policies are creating a profound toxic legacy from coal combustion wastes with no containment strategy, according to regulatory comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). By allowing virtually unlimited reuse of coal ash and other highly toxic combustion wastes, EPA is allowing the most potent pollutants – the same ones that cost billions of dollars to keep from billowing out of power plant smokestacks – to reach the environment in the manufacture, use, and disposal of second generation coal ash products.
Coal combustion produces the nation’s second biggest waste stream, second only to coal mining. Under EPA sponsorship, 60 million tons (nearly half the total) of coal ash and other wastes are used in mine fill, cement, wallboard, snow and ice control, agriculture and even cosmetics. Following a disastrous 2008 coal ash impoundment spill in Tennessee, this summer EPA finally put forward a proposal that would, at most, classify coal ash as hazardous only when it is in sludge (or “wet storage.”)
In comments filed with the EPA regulatory docket, PEER points out that due to stronger air pollution controls on emissions of mercury and other toxics, the mercury levels in coal ash and other wastes has been rising and will likely nearly double this decade. The data EPA used to make its May 2000 regulatory determination that coal ash is not hazardous is no longer representative of today’s waste stream.
In addition, EPA is ignoring its own scientific findings about mercury and other toxics reaching the environment from cross-media transfers (e.g., air to water), exposure and disposal of coal ash:
- Manufacture. Cement manufacture is the single biggest reuse but studies show that the high temperatures in cement kilns release all of the mercury in the coal combustion waste to the atmosphere. Similarly, gypsum wallboard plants are a secondary release point for mercury;
- Leaching and Loss. Mercury and other toxics spill in transport and leach out of products;
- Disposal. Products containing coal ash are disposed of in ways that release their toxic elements when the products are incinerated, pulverized or buried in unlined pits.
“By refusing to recognize its own research on growing toxicity and release, EPA remains in the closet when it comes to coal ash,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Ignoring cross-media transfers of mercury undercuts EPA’s own strategy for reducing health risks associated with mercury.”
In an August 6, 2010 letter to PEER, EPA reaffirmed its belief “that there are significant environmental benefits” from reusing coal ash “in an environmentally protective manner” while admitting that it has not defined what “an environmentally protective manner” is – thus, rooting the EPA stance in circular logic.
“Without regulation, utilities looking to save money can say virtually any use of coal ash is ‘recycling’ when it is in fact dumping,” Ruch added, noting that in twenty years the mercury load from hundreds of millions of tons of discarded coal ash products will be staggering. “EPA promoting recycling of coal wastes simply subsidizes a dirty industry at the expense of public health.”