Coal waste dumps: ticking toxic time bombs

Tom Yulsman of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado ran the following post on the toxic nature of coal combustion byproducts at the CEJ’s blog, CEJournal. Tom has been kind enough to permit S&R to crosspost his work here. This is Tom’s second guest post: his first (on a very different topic) can be found here, and the original of this post can be found here.

A truly frightening video from ground zero of the coal ash catastrophe

The New York Times reports today that the coal sludge that surged out of a breached Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment in Roane County was actually three times larger than previously estimated. The updated total is 5.4 million cubic yards, “or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep,” Times reporter Shaila Dewan reports.

The discrepancy casts doubt on the credibility of assurances from the Tennessee Valley Authority that the coal combustion waste from its Kingston Fossil Plant poses little risk to residents of the area. (Several days ago, one TVA official told the Associated Press that the waste “consists of inert material not harmful to the environment.”)

In fact, evidence has been gathering for years that the waste dumps pose a very serious risk to human health and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency itself has documented these risks, but the agency has not yet acted. As a result, environmental groups accuse the the EPA, as well as state regulators, of failing to adequately protect the public from the witches brew of toxins that can leak — and as this week’s catastrophe illustrated, flood — out of coal waste dumps. Representatives of the utility industry respond that they fix problems when they become known, and that they have been steadily cleaning up their act.

So in the aftermath of the spill from the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant, I thought it would be useful to compile information on the risks posed by coal combustion wastes and the current state of regulation. Due to the Christmas holiday, I wasn’t able to interview any of the principals. But what follows is a detailed look at what my background research has turned up, with links to both primary and secondary sources.

According to a report from the National Research Council, coal fired plants produce 129 million tons of combustion residues every year — enough to fill more one million railroad coal cars. That’s the second largest waste stream in the United States after municipal solid waste. All that material, consisting of fly ash, bottom ash (a dry, coarse material from the bottom of the furnace), boiler slag (molten material from the furnace that’s quenched in water), and residues from air pollution control technologies, must be disposed of somehow. The two most common methods are to dump it in a landfill or pile it in a surface impoundment like the one that failed in Tennessee. (For more information about how the wastes are produced, go here and scroll down to “Description of Coal Combustion Wastes.”)

The waste stored in these dumps can contain a host of toxic substances, including arsenic (cancer of the bladder, kidneys, liver, lungs, prostate, and skin); boron (harm to male reproductive organs; birth defects); cadmium (kidney damage); chromium (stomach ulcers, kidney and liver damage, increased risk of cancer); and lead (changes in brain and nervous system; learning problems and poor coordination in children).

While it’s true that all of these elements occur naturally in rocks and soils, burning of coal causes them to become concentrated in the combustion residues. And a 2007 draft report from the Environmental Protection Agency finds that lagoons and landfills filled with coal combustion waste may present a cancer risk that is 10,000 times greater than federal rules allow. For people drinking groundwater contaminated with arsenic leaking from coal waste impoundments, the risk of contracting cancer could be as a high as one in 100. Federal regulations set a limit of one in 100,000 to one in a million. (For more information, see: “Activists say EPA ignoring theat from coal ash,” by Don Hopey in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. )

According to the environmental group Earth Justice, the EPA has preliminary data showing that combustion residues from coal-fired power plants employing wet scrubbers to clean pollution from the stack gases pose a potentially unacceptable risk, with concentrations of heavy metals exceeding what the agency calls “maximum contaminant levels,” or MCL :

“Preliminary data indicate that EPA found that CCW from these plants leached high levels of numerous metals far over the articulated level of concern, including significantly elevated leaching of arsenic (at 400 times its MCL), antimony (at 33 times its MCL), chromium (at 40 times its MCL), thallium (at 150 times its MCL), mercury (at 12.5 times its MCL) and selenium (at 60 times its MCL). For thallium, boron, barium, and selenium, leachate levels were above the hazardous waste threshold. In addition, levels of concern for other metals including molybdenum, cadmium and lead were found.”

The risks do not appear to be theoretical. In the year 2000, for example, a report from three citizen’s groups funded by the John Merck Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund found ”more than 60 places in the country where these wastes have degraded our public ground and surface waters beyond any use — consumptive, agricultural, industrial, or environmental,” The report, titled “Laid to Waste: the dirty secret of combustion waste from America’s power plants,” also found the following:

“Fish consumption advisories in Texas and North Carolina have been directly linked to coal combustion waste disposal. Studies in South Carolina have documented multiple developmental, physiological and behavioral abnormalities in the nearly 25 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabiting wetlands associated with a coal ash disposal site.”

CBS video of the clean up from Dec. 25.

There is also growing concern about the presence of radioactive substances in coal combustion wastes. According to an article in Scientific American, “the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, fly ash . . . contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste.” In the story, Mara Hvistendahl notes that [that’s a patently absurd statement that I should not have included in the original post] the radioactive elements uranium and thorium occur in trace amounts in coal. When that coal is burned, the uranium and thorium are concentrated by a factor of 10 in the resulting fly ash.

Alex Gabbard of the Oak Ridge lab has estimated that cumulative releases of radioactive substances from 100 years of coal combustion following 1937 will amount to 145,230 tons of uranium, and 357,491 tons of thorium. Although that’s an awful lot of radioactive material, studies have shown that the risks from the radioactive content of fly ash for people living near a coal-fired power plant are low. Hvistendahl quotes Dana Christensen of Oak Ridge National Laboratory as saying that the risk of being struck by lighning is three to four times greater than “radiation-induced health effects from coal plants.”

But what risks are posed by the high concentrations of fly ash contained in coal waste landfills and impoundments? Alex Gabbard writes that “by collecting the uranium residue from coal combustion, significant quantities of fissionable material can be accumulated. In a few year’s time, the recovery of the uranium-235 released by coal combustion from a typical utility anywhere in the world could provide the equivalent of several World War II-type uranium-fueled weapons.” He concludes that “long-term accumulation of radioactive materials from continued worldwide combustion of coal could pose serious health hazards.”

The residents of Hariman, Tennessee would be justified in wondering whether radioactivity in the coal waste sludge inundating their homes and surrounding environment already poses a serious health hazard.

The Environmental Protection Agency itself has been quite concerned about the risks posed by combustion wastes, but it has so far failed to act. On April 24, 2000, the agency issued a Regulatory Determination stating that “coal combustion wastes could pose risks to human health and the environment if not properly managed,” and that national regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act “are warranted for coal combustion wastes when they are disposed in landfills or surface impoundments.” (Source: But Shaila Dewan writes in the New York Times that the agency backed away from regulating the wastes “in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials.”

The EPA continues to turn up evidence of the risks posed by coal combustion wastes. According to an agency report published in 2007 (see page 7), pollution from coal combustion waste dumps and lagoons had contaminated surface water and groundwater at 24 sites in the United States. The agency also found an additional 43 cases where potential damage to ground water or surface water had occurred.

An investigation by the Charleston Post and Courier, utilizing the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, turned up the following cases of contamination in that state:

” — Near Moncks Corner, in the quiet Whitesville community, arsenic-laced water from a coal ash landfill is leaking into a nearby pond.

— Farther north, near Congaree National Park, arsenic 200 to 400 times the federal drinking water limit has been found in groundwater at SCE&G’s plant on the banks of the Wateree River.

— On the Savannah River, SCE&G’s Urquhart plant has groundwater tainted with arsenic eight times above the federal standard.

— Closer to Charleston, near Canadys, a breach in an earthen wall at two ash ponds allowed arsenic and nickel to pollute groundwater next to the Edisto River.”

Given the risks, the public would be justified in demanding strict regulation of coal waste landfills and impoundments. Is it happening?

According to Earth Justice (citing EPA reports), “almost a third of coal-fired power plants in the United States reside in states that potentially exempt CCW landfills from the requirement of obtaining a solid waste permit; in fact, some facilities are excluded from all regulation of solid waste.” And in its 2000 report, the EPA determined that 57% of all landfills and only 26% of all surface impoundments had liners, raising the risk that toxic materials could leak into groundwater supplies. Earth Justice concludes that ”the overwhelming majority of disposal sites in the country are still operating without basic safeguards.”

If that is true, we might expect more accidents like the one in Tennessee. Since the Tennessee catastrophe was not the first such accident, I’d say it’s a good bet.

In 1967 a spill on the Clinch River in Virginia released 130 million gallons of coal waste, according to the New York Times. In 1972 a coal waste impoundment structure in Logan County, West Virginia, collapsed. A report from the The National Research Council states that the resulting flood of waste water totaled 132 million gallons and reached a crest of 30 feet high. Residents along Buffalo Creak were directly in the path of a rampaging flood of toxic waste. One hundred twenty five people died, 1,100 were injured and more than 4,000 people were left homeless. In October of 2000, an impoundment in Martin County, Kentucky failed, releasing more than 300 million gallons of toxic material into an abandoned underground mine. The waste eventually seeped into the Big Sandy River. And in 2005, according to the Times, a breach in Northampton County, Pa., released about 100 million gallons into the Delaware River.

The Charleston Post and Courier investigative series concluded just a little more than a month before the Tennessee catastrophe, which appears to be the worst of its kind on record. So their timing seems prescient. Reporter Tony Barelme concluded the opening article in the series on Oct. 26, 2008 with words that sum up the current situation perfectly:

“For years, coal-burning companies, along with federal and state regulators, viewed ash as if it was no more dangerous than dirt. But contamination cases here and across the country, along with a growing body of evidence about the effects of ash on wildlife, raise new questions about how this little-known byproduct is handled — and how it will be dealt with in the future.”

3 replies »

  1. All the trace elements that the plants, from which the coal is made, soaked up over the course of their collective lives remain…to be set free in our quest to attain the left over hydrogen that those plants used to power their lives.

    When that coal was laid down, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was between 2 and 3 times what it is today. It meant plants in overdrive, breaking apart the CO2 as fast as they could get their little chloroplasts on it…and sequestering the left over carbon.

    Trace elements are toxic to plants in anything above trace amounts. Now we have them let loose into the ecosystem after being concentrated at least twice.

    Sometimes it seems like we are the monkey wrench in the works.