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Beyond the Light Switch: What to do about coal ash?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The aftermath of burning a mountain of coal isn’t pretty. It’s not just the ash itself; it’s also the toxic elements that have been purified by fire out of the "fossilized sunshine."

Those toxic elements come along for the ride when the coal ash spills, like it did near Kingston, Tenn., on December 22, 2008. The "Christmas coal ash spill" was the largest such disaster in U.S. history and covered more than a square kilometer of land before the roughly 4 billion liters of slurry ended up in the Emory and Clinch rivers. Those stretches of river effectively died.

The rivers are now recovering, thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—a government-owned corporation that runs power plants throughout that region—which may ultimately spend more than a billion dollars to clean up its coal ash mess. Even so, a scientific survey found arsenic and other contaminants at high levels in water in the rivers sediment 18 months later.



It would seem obvious, given the scale of the clean up and its impacts, that such coal ash would be considered hazardous waste.

It is not. Instead, it is put to "beneficial use" in products such as roadbeds, cement and wallboard. It’s even added to soil. And when it’s not being used, some companies simply dump it back into the mines from whence it first came.

Unfortunately, the toxic metals in the ash have a tendency to interact with groundwater and percolate into drinking supplies. The only way to prevent that is to dispose of the ash in specially lined landfills to prevent such leaching—something that would be required if coal ash were deemed hazardous waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been mulling over whether to reclassify coal ash as hazardous waste even though its analysis of the constituents of coal ash leaves no question. But the U.S. produces more than 100 million metric tons of the stuff every year and those charged with disposing of this massive amount of waste are not disposed to face additional hurdles to finding a place to get rid of it.

And that means that coal ash continues to pile up in more than 580 sites across the country, including elsewhere in the Tennessee Valley. After all, the TVA alone generates more than 6 million metric tons of such ash every year. In fact, just one month after the Christmas coal ash spill near Kingston, the TVA spilled some 37,000 liters of coal ash slurry in Alabama near Scottsboro.

So the only question is: where will the next spill be?

Editor’s Note: David Biello is the host of a forthcoming series on PBS, titled Beyond the Light Switch. The series, produced by Detroit Public Television, will explore how transformation is coming to how we use and produce electricity, impacting the environment, national security and the economy.

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  1. 1. scientific earthling 5:54 pm 12/21/2010

    The mercury released into the bio-sphere by burning coal will at least make us happy as mad hatters before we all die.

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  2. 2. doug l 6:51 pm 12/21/2010

    Just the word "waste" should suggest that it is the result of poor understanding and utilization, and tantamount to defeat even before you get started on solving what ever the problem actually is. A mountain of BS can either be a colossal pain or potential gold mine in many cases and certainly with fly ash. A boldly confident scientific civilization interested in stickin’ around for a few more centuries at least, would probably say; "hey, let’s properly manage these by-products of industry for the day in the near future when we will want to recycle those mountains of ash for their radioactive nucleides, heavy metals, whatever, and either use it for fuel in our new, clean, safe next generation nuclear power generators, or subject it to neutron bombardment so that it can be transmuted into desireable and more benign elements."

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  3. 3. John Reynolds 7:13 pm 12/21/2010

    Sad that we’re given the nebulous "High Levels" rather than specifics. There’s no debate that adding carbon (ash) to soil enriches the soil’s fertility… but of course "High Levels" of arsenic and heavy metals would be a bad thing (if we actually knew what those "High Levels" were).

    I agree with Doug… Coal Ash is only waste because folks haven’t figured out how to make money off it – yet.

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  4. 4. fyngyrz 7:20 pm 12/21/2010

    "A boldly confident scientific civilization"

    [looks around]

    o Sees congress praying to an imaginary man in the sky
    o Sees laws creating a permanent underclass
    o Sees the prejudices facing polygamy, homosexuality, etc.
    o Sees huge numbers of people in jail for consensual "crimes"
    o Sees no nuclear reactors being built
    o Sees our manned space program winding down to nothing
    o Sees not one, but TWO utterly senseless wars
    o Sees the constitution being trampled by the judiciary
    o Sees an *intentionally* inflationary financial system
    o Sees insufficient attention paid to getting off oil
    o Sees "police" routinely shooting the family dog
    o Sees industry departing for other countries
    o Sees lack of healthcare for 10% of the population

    "A boldly confident scientific civilization"

    …wonders where the heck it is you live, where you have any hope at all of such a thing. Me, I expect a complete financial meltdown within ten years, followed by a social regression the likes of which we will not enjoy at all. During which science is not likely to be anyone’s first priority. That’s going to be bread. You read the article, right? These piles of toxins… they can’t even get up the nerve to declare them toxic. They’re not storing them, they’re letting them into the groundwater. Imagine the consequences of such indecision in your home. "Sure, honey, let’s store the bleach in the milk bottle." I live in a country run (into the ground) by the ignorant and the clueless. I have no hope.

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  5. 5. letxequalx 10:44 pm 12/21/2010

    same for nuclear waste – I think within twenty years our government will be accepting contracts from companies who wish to utilize valuable radioisotopes.

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  6. 6. letxequalx 10:47 pm 12/21/2010

    when I have coal ash at home I turn up the thermostat or get a blanket

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  7. 7. spectralmist 1:29 am 12/22/2010

    I think you missed the point of his comment. He was NOT saying that we have such a civilization. Rather, he was pointing out what a civilization would see in place of a problem: opportunity and resource.

    As to your list of ills, this is not a perfect nation, and never has been, but it isn’t as bad as you seem to believe, and still has the wherewithall to reverse course, should the electorate choose to be and stay not only more aware and involved, but particularly more informed. Some of your points are over-stretched, and indicate watching a little too much of the 24-hour news channels. But, feel free to educate others … so long as you are willing to practice a bit of humility, and a great deal of disciplined and energetic curiosity.

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  8. 8. Unbeliever 5:29 am 12/22/2010

    I believe it is conterproductive to formulate rules concerning the treatment or handling of materials deemed toxic to humans, as humans are the producer of said toxic materials, and as such, should be fully exposed to them. As this exposure would lead to humanity’s early demise, production of toxic materials would cease.

    I am sure Scientific Earthling will agree with the logic of this conclusion.

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  9. 9. Unbeliever 5:32 am 12/22/2010

    I’m moving to China. Will you join me?

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  10. 10. JamesDavis 8:32 am 12/22/2010

    We have all the resources we need to completely reverse the pollution that we have created in the world, yet we choose to do little -very little- about it and we continue to rapidly add more to it. I can speak about West Virginia because I live here and closely observe what they are doing and West Virginia is probably one of the worst fossil fuel polluters in the nation and the government here has no intentions of stopping until West Virginia is turned into one big toxic waste dump. The coal and natural gas companies are removing the mountains and creating valleys so the coal slurry and toxic waste water from natural gas fracking can puddle and spread throughout the state. West Virginia is already #1 in the nation in chronic childhood diseases and brain diseases because of the coal slurry seeping into drinking water and toxic waste from natural gas fracking doing the same. West Virginia is working even harder to be #1 in the nation in toxic genocide. If this process works good in West Virginia, the military can use the toxins created here to speed up the ending of wars. Their logic is sound…if there is no one left to fight – there can be no war.

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  11. 11. focalist 8:52 am 12/22/2010

    @Unbeliever- to the worst coal-burning country on the planet- not even stack scrubbers. Righto.

    Sure, something in the ash might be useful someday.. but it’s >poison< right now, and that is not a "might be".

    Actually, you what it’s called when people can’t bring themselves to dispose of things properly, because they fear that they might be needed someday? It’s a pathological illness known as "Hoarding" among other things. Hoarders *FREQUENTLY* are sickened and sometimes even die, from exposure to their supposed "useful someday" garbage. Often, hoarders are "found out" because they or a family member/neighbor has become sick or injured due to the reckless and pathological behaviour of the person.

    Your "logic" requires counseling and medication- and in the mean time, the rest of us may pay with our lives and the lives our children- for YOUR pathological folly.

    Sorry, please sell crazy somewhere else.

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  12. 12. Soccerdad 9:29 am 12/22/2010

    This whole coal ash issue is completely overblown. The real issue is that people don’t like that coal is burned at all. One big incident in hundreds of years of coal burning, and we should ban the burning of coal?

    In my list of millions of things to worry about, coal ash is definitely in the bottom half.

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  13. 13. tharter 11:20 am 12/22/2010

    Right… all those 100′s of millions of tons of this stuff are some kind of fantasy, and there’s only been ONE spill! ROFLMAO. Go actually do a little reading head-in-the-sand-man. It isn’t just what spills either, it is what seeps into the ground, flows into the rivers, etc.

    Coal is just BAD STUFF. It contributes to environmental degradation in dozens of ways. The truth is that certain people make money off of it. For those people it is an advantage to just spend some of that loot on corrupting the government and society so people will pretend that poison isn’t poison. The truth is that cost of burning coal in real terms is so high that every ton we burn actually impoverishes us more than the net economic benefit of the electricity or steel produced.

    You can say renewable power is more expensive, but only in the very short-sighted near-term in which all the externalized costs are simply ignored. The reality is we are stupidly driving our economy into the ground with this idiocy, and coal ash is really just a tiny part of the whole picture.

    So yeah, I agree, lets not classify it as waste, instead lets just STOP PRODUCING IT. Every dollar we spend on renewable energy is going to save us many dollars in the long run, and every dollar we spend on efficiency saves double.

    Indeed this society is literally insane.

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  14. 14. sethdayal 1:58 pm 12/22/2010

    Nuclear power is actually cheaper in capital cost than new coal plants designed to meet EPA standards and much less expensive in per kwh cost. In fact America’s highly efficient public power company TVA has learned its lesson and is replacing coal with nukes.

    The incredibly backwards and inefficient private sector is replacing coal with dirt cheap deadly fine particulate, radioactive radon and GHG spewing natural gas plant. Because natural gas distribution systems are notoriously leaky spewing the 75 times as GHG potent as CO2 methane all along their length, natural gas is almost as dirty an air polluter as just burning coal. NG also spews deadly fine particulate pollution which is more deadly than the coarse particles from burning coal.

    Although on a per kwh basis gas is about the same cost as nuclear, utility execs love the cheap gas plant because it keeps up the quarterly bonus’s while at the same time the massive future cost increases from gas price inflation get passed to the ratepayer without question.

    The new Repug congress will be passing clean energy standards which include nuclear and not gas. Since nuclear power is the only clean technology that is economically viable we will see a big boost in coal to nuclear conversion and the virtual elimination of ultra expensive worthless solar and wind projects which must be load balanced 100% with gas.

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  15. 15. fyngyrz 3:39 pm 12/22/2010

    sprectalmist said:

    "but it isn’t as bad as you seem to believe"

    I disagree and can bring well-organized details and references as to why. Simply saying I’m wrong doesn’t make a worthwhile case. Either provide evidence for your position or don’t expect me to take you seriously.

    The fact is, I *have* evidence for my case that richly supports the top-level factual observations I made in the post you refer to. You want some of that, I’m happy to bring the relevant issues to the table. But you’ll have to make a worthwhile point, first, or at *least* ask for elaboration on one or more of the points I made that you disagree with. I’m not about to preemptively try to explain how I see the entire country working to you in the SA comments section. You have to participate sensibly based on specific issues or it’s simply not worth my time.


    "Some of your points are over-stretched, and indicate watching a little too much of the 24-hour news channels"

    I don’t watch the news channels at all — or any other television for that matter — here, you’re simply trying (and failing) to use your imagination to impugn my methods. That kind of thing isn’t going to get you anywhere. Either request elaboration on my points or make counter points of your own. These are the heart of rational discussion. Attempting to discredit someone by guessing about their methods (wrongly, for that matter) isn’t even up to the level of high school debating.

    "But, feel free to educate others"

    Not to worry, I do. The problem I face, along with many others, is that some otherwise capable people aren’t willing to be educated. Rampant superstition, lack of knowledge of economics and our monetary system, scientific illiteracy, dogmatic and deeply held prejudices… these things present problems that are intractable in the short term, and as I said above, it is my opinion that the short term is all we have remaining to us.

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