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The Unseen Cost of Fossil Fuels

07 November 2017

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For years fossil fuels have been blasted for the crimes of air pollution and sustainability. However, another major environmental issue lurks below the surface, quite literally, and that is the waste ponds that have been created with coal ash from power plants’ burning processes.

What is Coal Ash?

Also known as coal combustion residuals or CCRs, coal ash is a toxin produced primarily from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants to make electricity. 

Coal ash is one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the United States.

According to the American Coal Ash Association's Coal Combustion Product Production & Use Survey Report, nearly 130 million tonnes of coal ash was generated in 2014.

Where does it go?

More than a third is disposed of in dry landfills and a fifth is mixed with water and placed in "surface impoundments”, known as ash ponds. These are lined with compacted clay soil, plastic sheet, or both to prevent contamination. However, as rain filters through the ash ponds after time, toxic metals, such as mercury, lead and arsenic, leach out and push downward towards the soil below and eventually make their way to local streams and rivers used for drinking water.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that all liners eventually degrade, crack or tear, meaning that all landfills eventually leak and release their toxins into the local environment. They determined that a 10-acre landfill would leak between 730 and 36,500 gallons over a ten-year period, an amount guaranteed to contaminate any drinking water supply.

What impact does it have?

Ash ponds have been described as a ticking time bomb.  When leaching occurs, the toxic metals within coal ash can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans. According to the EPA, people that live near ash ponds have a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer if they drink the arsenic contaminated water.

As well as this, the pH adjustment within these ponds kills local wildlife, encourages flooding and destroys large areas of land.

On December 22, 2008, an earthen wall broke at Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant (TVA) in Harriman, Tennessee, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash . When the EPA tested water samples after the spill, they found arsenic at 149 times the allowable standard for drinking water.

The recovery took five years at a cost of more than $1 billion.

What’s next?

There are over 1000 coal ash landfills and ponds in the United States according to the EPA. These ponds have come under scrutiny in recent years because of massive leaks and spills, of which 208 have been recorded, that have caused immense damage to not only the surrounding land but the locals living on it and yet there are still little federal regulations for them.

The federal government need to step in and clean up a problem that they effectively created through their passive blindness to the long as the coal fired power stations were making money, as long as oil prices were moving higher and the American economy needed this electrical lifeblood, they were happy to turn a blind eye. As such, the successive governments have passed the problem from generation to generation like an unwanted family heirloom.

There are American contractors ready to take on this work, but the responsible parties need to take action and tougher regulations need to be put in place to prevent contamination through sensible safeguards such as phasing out leak-prone ash ponds and ensuring the use of synthetic liners.

Can the federal government, power plants and contractors all work together to solve this ongoing problem?



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coal ash contamination Environmental Remediation