Strong standards for coal ash

Health threats are numerous

October 5, 2010 

Kentucky generates more waste from coal-fired power plants than any other state. With 44 coal ash ponds, we're second only to Indiana on that dubious measure.

Someone living near an unlined coal-ash pond has up to a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer from arsenic, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Living near ash ponds increases the risk of damage to liver, kidney and lungs from lead, cadmium, cobalt and other pollutants.

Ash ponds and landfills threaten to overwhelm aquatic ecosystems with toxic levels of other heavy metals, according to the EPA.

Kentucky needs a strong, uniform standard to ensure that the poisons in power-plant waste don't leak or spill into groundwater and rivers.

The EPA must supply that standard because the states are unable or unwilling to do so.

The most dramatic example is the TVA ash pond that failed in 2008, dumping a billion gallons of contaminated waste into the Emory River and onto a nearby neighborhood.

But day in and day out, the invisible, slow leaking of coal-combustion waste into the environment poses a threat.

In Kentucky, the Sierra Club commissioned an examination of groundwater monitoring data for coal-ash disposal facilities. Of the state's 44 ash ponds, the state Division of Waste had monitoring data for only 8, and that data was limited and incomplete. Even from the limited records, the researchers were able to conclude that contaminants had leached into groundwater at all eight sites.

Kentuckians' health is at risk from the waste from coal-fired power plants, waste that contains heavy metals, carcinogens and mutagens.

Yet at a public hearing in Louisville last week on stronger standards, the coal industry and utilities argued that we can't afford safer disposal methods.

How much would it cost? The Institute for Southern Studies in Raleigh, N.C., used a government analysis to estimate the cost of regulating coal-combustion waste as a hazardous waste.

Even in Kentucky, where the estimated increase would be the greatest of any Southern state at 2.3 percent, the average monthly residential bill of $89.35 would increase by just $2.06.

Twenty-five bucks a year to protect our water from a threat that grows in volume by millions of tons a year is worth it.

One of the more compelling arguments we've heard against classifying coal ash as hazardous is that it would stifle recycling and beneficial use of the waste. This argument is exaggerated.

Consumers routinely use products that have hazardous ingredients without fear as long as the hazards are safely contained and processed.

Coal ash, now used as an ingredient in concrete, still could be if classified as hazardous. In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council has said it would continue to offer incentives for builders to use the ash in concrete in LEED-certified green buildings.

Recycling coal waste in ways that threaten water and public health deserves closer scrutiny.

Under pressure from industry and coal interests, the EPA is considering two alternative proposals. One is too weak and would leave the states in charge and the public at risk.

The EPA should adopt the stronger of the two by enacting a federal standard that will even protect residents of coal states.

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