Trade group says coal ash no more toxic than common dirt

The American Coal Ash Association (ACAA) released a study June 6 seeking to refute assertions by environmental groups who typically depict coal ash as a “toxic” material.

The study provided to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., says an analysis of federal government data suggests coal ash constituents are, with few exceptions, below the environmental screening levels for residential soils. In other words, the report finds that coal ash is no more dangerous than “common dirt.”

The trade group’s members are involved in recycling coal ash for uses such as road building and construction material, and are trying to fend off efforts to have coal combustion residue regulated by the U.S. EPA as a hazardous waste.

The debate over how the federal government should oversee this material has been going on for years and the ACAA thought it had the matter settled during the Clinton Administration. But the issue was revived in the aftermath of the failure of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) ash impoundment at its Kingston coal plant in December 2008, which dumped massive amounts of ash in the local watershed.

“Anti-coal environmental activists consistently refer to coal ash as ‘highly toxic’ and ‘hazardous to your health’ with no regard for how those unsupported descriptions damage the environmentally beneficial recycling of the material,” said ACAA Executive Director Thomas  Adams. Adams assumed the top job at the coal ash association just a couple of months after the TVA spill.

The EPA has been working on a rulemaking for roughly four years now and most observers don’t expect to see a coal combustion product rule published by the end of 2012, Adams said. Indeed, there is also speculation that EPA could soon ask for additional public input on the issue, he added.

“Coal Ash Material Safety – A Health Risk-Based Evaluation of USGS Coal Ash Data from Five US Power Plants” uses scientific methods to demonstrate that coal ash does not qualify as a hazardous substance based on its composition and it also should not be classified as hazardous on a human health risk basis.

The report uses recently-published U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data on the constituents of coal ash collected from five power plants in Alaska, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio and Wyoming. The data represent a broad spectrum of coal types and environmental conditions. “This scientific analysis, taken with other reports, conclusively shows that coal ash is safe and comparable to other common materials. Its use as a recycled material should be encouraged, not disparaged,” Adams said.

“Comparing coal ash constituents to residential soil screening levels is the most environmentally conservative approach possible,” said the report’s author, Lisa JN Bradley. Bradley is a vice president and senior toxicologist/risk assessor with AECOM, a global provider of professional technical and management support services in engineering and allied fields. She has a Ph.D. in toxicology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has 25 years of experience in risk assessment and toxicology consulting.

“This analysis estimates exposure to children who live on top of a coal ash pile 24 hours a day,” Bradley said. “Even under these unrealistic conditions, the metals contained in coal ash do not rise to a level that warrants more than a screening level evaluation using U.S. EPA established guidelines.”

Less coal being burned; less of it being recycled

Defending the environmental image of coal ash is a big deal for coal ash recyclers, who are suffering on two fronts. First, cheap natural gas is taking market share from coal-fired power plants, thus reducing the amount of coal ash available to reuse for construction.

Second, the specter of EPA regulation as a hazardous substance has had a chilling effect on some normal customers for coal ash reuse.

The percentage of coal ash recycling in the United States declined in 2010 – reversing a decade of growth of a practice that conserves energy and natural resources, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and safely keeps ash out of landfills and disposal ponds, ACAA said.

Only 42.5% of the 130 million tons of coal ash produced in 2010 was beneficially used. That is a decline from 44.3% in 2009. ACAA is now compiling its survey findings for 2011.

The ACAA supports a bill by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., which has been inserted into the congressional Transportation Bill as an amendment. The proposal would allow government regulation of coal ash as a non-hazardous substance.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at