Coal Ash: The Forgotten Waste Rears its Ugly Head

AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mark Hoffman

Coal ash has made its way back in the news again after a bluff caved in at WE Energies Oak Creek Power Plant releasing the hazardous waste into Lake Michigan.  The collapsing bluff swept away trailers and other construction equipment leaving a debris field 120 yards long and 50-80 yards wide at the bottom. Unfortunately, it’s not just accidents that are resulting in coal ash polluting our waters. The Badger, Lake Michigan’s historical coal-burning ferry, dumps 4 tons of coal ash each trip it makes across the lake.  Coal ash contains high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead but unfortunately has few regulations regarding its use.

The EPA is working on creating stricter regulations for coal ash use.  Under EPA’s proposed regulations, large coal ash fill sites would be considered as hazardous waste disposal and would have to be identified and monitored. These kind of regulations are especially important for sites like WE Energies that have placed coal ash in or on unsteady ground. UW-Milwaukee geologist Tom Hooyer says “The bluffs along Lake Michigan are in constant recession. They recess a foot per year on average.”

WE Energies power plant site used coal ash as “structural fill” in the 1950s but unfortunately this haphazard process continues to be used today. According to the 2009 report from the American Coal Ash Association more than 8.8 million tons were used for similar projects. The proposed regulations would also transition the Badger from burning coal to oil.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives have just passed a bill that would handcuff EPA’s ability to move forward with strong coal ash disposal safeguards for our communities and the same bill has been introduced into the Senate. Coal ash disposal is not simply an environmental issue but an important public health issue.

Contact your senators and demand they regulate coal ash like the hazardous waste it is.

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One response to “Coal Ash: The Forgotten Waste Rears its Ugly Head

  1. Each year our nation’s power plants generate 140 million tons of coal ash, representing the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S. To date, billions of tons of ash have been dumped in over 1000 huge ponds, pits, and landfills. These federally unregulated dumps put drinking water at risk of contamination endangering the health and safety of thousands of communities. For example, the cancer risk from drinking water contaminated by arsenic near some coal ash ponds is 1 in 50, which is 2,000 times greater than the EPA’s acceptable risk level. Here in Illinois we have more cases of contaminated groundwater from coal ash than any other state.

    S.1751 must not pass the Senate. S. 1751 would allow the construction of coal ash dumps that don’t meet drinking water standards for arsenic, lead and other pollutants and will prevent the EPA from ever revisiting a federal coal ash rule even if it is found that coal ash dumps pose an even greater threat.

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