Oops...There's Fly-Ash In The Clean Coal Ointment
A few months back we reported on why we felt coal-fired utilities have so strongly resisted stringent air emission standards for mercury: it, or other heavy metals captured in pollution control devices, could potentially cause fly ash to become regulated as a hazardous waste in the US. All coal contains a variety of heavy metals; and, mercury, a heavy metal ubiquitous among coals, is especially dangerous to human health. The less mercury that is allowed to go up the stack as vapor, or attached to particulates, the more mercury is transferred to fly-ash, bottom ash, or wastewater discharged from coal-burning plants. There absolutely is no "away" for mercury. Even if you could somehow capture all of it in elemental form, there is no market; nor should there be one for mercury. Lead and arsenic have similar risks, although there are indeed markets for these.
However, it made sense when a commenter reminded us that fly ash could simply be deposited in spent coal mines, and that this has been a common practice where mines are close enough to the coal fired generators. Now comes the news:
"Pennsylvania calls putting fly ash waste from coal-fired power plants into abandoned coal mines a "beneficial use," but a coalition of national environmental groups has issued a report showing the widespread practice does much more harm than good."
"The report released yesterday by the Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice says at 10 of the 15 mines it examined in the state, nearby ground water and streams contained levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium and other pollutants above safe standards. In addition, at six of nine mines where ash is used to treat acid mine drainage, the acid in the groundwater has increased.""
"Clean coal" technology and C02 sequestration cost-effectiveness are increasingly looking like moot points unless and until this issue is solved. There are projections now of 400+ years of coal in the US, and strongly increased demand projected for electricity generation. If the increased amounts of fly-ash waste produced to meet this demand are going to become regulated as hazardous waste, fly ash can longer go into municipal landfills. This could be especially problematic for utilities located far from the mines. And, managing fly ash will become much more expensive if many mines are found to be unacceptable repositories. USEPA, state regulators, and utilities can't continue to just look the other way, or assume that they will become magically exempt from the hazwaste regs.
"And the Maryland Department of the Environment has been aware of the problem since the companies first identified it, but has continuously allowed fly ash to be dumped at the mine and approved plans to deposit the substance at more sites in Gambrills. In the meantime, fly ash -- a by-product of the combustion of coal -- has seeped into the water supply beneath the site, contaminating wells in at least 23 nearby homes with dangerous amounts of heavy metals, sometimes more than 10 times above the federal Environmental Protection Agency's levels for safe water."