Another Cost of Coal

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Hotline, Winter 2002

by Kate St. John, GASP Board Member

There are many hidden costs of coal-fired electricity that we don’t pay for in our utility bills — things like mine subsidence, strip mine damage, valley fills, air pollution and acid mine drainage. Even when we try to keep coal clean and recycle its by-products, the dirt simply moves to a new problem area. Take the case of power plant waste (PPW), the subject of a special public forum in Jefferson Hills last December.

Coal-fired power plants create a lot of waste while they’re busy generating electricity — more than 115 million tons every year. Sixty percent of the waste is fly ash captured by scrubbers from the exhaust gases, to prevent pollutants from reaching the air. The remainder is sludge, bottom ash and slag. The result is a brew of silica, alumina, calcium, lime and undesirably high concentrations of sulphates, chlorides, cadmium, arsenic, selenium, mercury and much, much more. The Clean Air Act prohibits releasing this mixture into the air, but once it becomes a solid there are few regulations on its use. Why?

Power plant waste disposal is a huge expense so utilities have found ways to recycle up to 30% of it. Some of the uses — in cement, bricks and wallboard — lock away the waste’s harmful effects, but other uses — fill for deep mines, soil amendment (fertilizer) and landfill disposal — expose the material to water. PPW appears safe at first because it absorbs water but a decade later it leaches sulphates, then heavy metals. Communities learned the hard way at 60 disposal sites where ground water became unusable. Aquatic life was killed or deformed at some locations; these became Superfund sites.

By March of 2000, problems with PPW prompted EPA to draft a decision to regulate it as a hazardous waste. The utilities and PPW’s users protested the draft immediately and it was reversed within a month. EPA now leaves PPW regulation to the states, but Pennsylvania is such a huge importer of waste there’s no economic incentive to increase its regulation. In a few years we could end up with a big water quality problem on our hands if we don’t make sure the waste is handled properly now.

Power plant waste is just one more legacy of coal — a complicated problem requiring our vigilant attention to assure clean air and water for future generations.