Spiking Mercury Levels in Coal Ash Pose New Risks

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Email: info@peer.org

Spiking Mercury Levels in Coal Ash Pose New Risks

Tougher Pollution Controls Multiply Toxic Potency of Coal Combustion Wastes

WASHINGTON - 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."

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Read the PEER comments

See EPA letter reaffirming support of coal ash reuse

Look at the wide range of products containing coal ash

 View the weak EPA coal ash proposal

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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