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Coal Waste Contaminates More Water than Initial Estimates

More U.S. coal-waste disposal sites have contaminated drinking or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals, according to a study by Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club, reports The Wall Street Journal.

The report, “In Harm’s Way: Lack Of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans And Their Environment” (PDF), based on data available through state agencies, reveals that contaminants at 39 coal-waste sites across 21 states have leached into the groundwater. This is in addition to 67 cases already identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A February 2010 EIP/Earthjustice report documented 31 coal-ash dump sites in 14 states. The 39 additional sites in this report, along with the 67 already identified by the EPA, brings the total number of known toxic contamination sites from coal ash pollution to 137 in 34 states, according to the researchers.

Of the 39 problem sites, 35 had groundwater-monitoring data available, which showed that wells located at or near the coal-waste disposal sites contained pollutants such as arsenic, selenium, lead and chromium, according to the article. The four other sites involved surface water discharges and spills.

But there could be a bigger problem, according to the report. The study indicates that large coal ash-generating states like Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico and Tennessee, require no monitoring by law at coal ash ponds, at least while they are still in operation.

The coalition says the survey indicates that the EPA needs to regulate the waste produced by coal-fired power plants instead of leaving oversight to the states, according to the article.

The report is intended to influence the EPA as the agency begins public hearings next week on whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, put enforcement into the hands of federal and state officials, or institute new restrictions under which enforcement would come through lawsuits by states and individuals, reports the newspaper.

Depending on how those regulations are crafted, coal ash could be regulated like a hazardous waste, a move that has raised concerns among small and large businesses alike. Utilities have already begun lobbying the White House on the potential effect of the EPA’s proposed rules.

And some recyclers have said that a hazardous waste classification carries a stigma and would raise liability fears, making it difficult to use coal ash in building materials.

More than 40 percent of coal waste is recycled, added to products such as cement and drywall, a practice known as “beneficial reuse,” while the remainder is disposed of in landfills or retention ponds, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The EPA’s proposed rules support beneficial reuse or recycling of coal ash in the manufacture of materials such as cement, concrete and asphalt.

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3 thoughts on “Coal Waste Contaminates More Water than Initial Estimates

  1. I thought it was CLEAN COAL. Trust the government and those in Virginia/West Virginia. They are interested in the Amercian people and providing safe clean energy… Yea, what a load…how much money do you think they profit. Good thought to have…how much does the coal actually cost? Nothing, it’s free. Like fish in the ocean, free. Yes, cost to get to the use but the resource, the raw material…FREE.

  2. I still have a real problem with this. So where did the coal come from that is leaching pollutants into the groundwater? It was mined from underground. Did it contain the “pollutants” while it lay in its natural state or did they magically appear when the coal was burned. If it wasn’t considered a pollutant when it was in its natural state, why is it a pollutant when it has been stripped of carbon and placed on the ground some where else. Should we declare all coal seams as hazardous? Think about what the statist in D.C. are trying to do now. A little more research needs to be done comparing the natural state and the burned state of coal.

  3. Some of the pollutants were contained in the coal as it lay in the ground. Mercury, arsenic, and other heavy metals for example. Before being mined and burned, the coal safely contained those elements in a way that prevented them from making their way into the biosphere. But when the coal is burned, alot of those contaminants are released into the atmosphere, to be absorbed by living organisms like us. And the resulting coal ash contains more of the same contaminants, some of which were not released into the air but remained in the residue of the burning process. But since the coal ash is now composed of tiny particles as opposed to solid coal, those remaining contaminants are far freer to disperse into the environment by water leaching or other processes.

    Other pollutants, like SO2, are created as a part of the process of burning coal. Alot of coal in the ground contains sulfur. As that coal is burned, the sulfer is also burned, thereby forming the sulfer dioxide molecule. Which is then also released into the atmosphere to be absorbed by living organisms.

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