Overview of Recent Toxic Coal Ash Spills

Where is Your Clean Coal Now?
We all know that burning coal is a very dirty source of energy. Just the act of mining it out of the ground causes a fair amount of destruction (and costs the lives of many miners, especially in poorer countries), and burning it produces more CO2 than any other source of energy, as well as mercury that makes its way up the food chain and smog-forming emissions of all kinds... But that's not all! Even after all that you are left with literally tons of coal ash (fly ash captured from the chimneys, and bottom ash from the furnace) that sometimes just spills out of the giant holding ponds (oops). This has happened at least 3 times in the US in recent months. In this post, we look at those incidents and at possible future regulations of coal ash by the Obama administration.
So What's In Coal Ash?
First, we have to know what we're dealing with. Coal ash is claimed to be pretty safe by the coal industry, but it still contains some pretty nasty stuff. According to two studies (Managing Coal Combustion Residues in Mines, Committee on Mine Placement of Coal Combustion Wastes, National Research Council of the National Academies, 2006, and Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes, RTI, Research Triangle Park, August 6, 2007, prepared for the US EPA): "Toxic constituents include arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds."

Small quantities relative to the total quantity of coal ash for sure, but when you see (as we will below) that vast quantities of coal ash can spill over inhabited areas, into rivers, etc, it seems like it all adds up to enough to cause huge damage (on top of the mining, CO2, mercury, smog, etc). The EPA might not (yet) officially consider coal ash hazardous, yet it tells people in Tennessee to wash the tires of their vehicles, not to walk in coal ash because they could drag some in their homes, etc... Sounds pretty hazardous to me.

The Mother of All Coal Ash Spills: Tennessee's Kingston TVA Coal Plant
After the dike of a 40-acre holding pond broke at Kingston's TVA coal plant in Tennessee, an estimates 525 million gallons to 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge spilled over the area, covering 400 acres in coal ash about 6 feet deep, destroying a dozen houses and a train. Some of the toxic sludge got into the Emory river, "a tributary of the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers: The water supply for Chattanooga, Tennessee as well as millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky."

"According to the EPA the cleanup will take at least several weeks, but could take years. Officials also said that the magnitude of this spill is such that the entire area could be declared a federal superfund site. "

For more images and information on the Tennessee coal ash spill, see this video:

Meanwhile, more coal ash waste is being added to similar holding ponds every day: "America's thirst for energy generates leaves between 122 and 129 million tons of waste from spent coal each year."

Image: Google Maps
Second Coal Ash Spill: Widows Creek, Alabama
A second, but thankfully smaller, coal ash spill occurred in Alabama only a few weeks after the Tennessee one. This time a coal ash sludge holding pond sprung a leak into Widows Creek.

TVA spokesman John Moulton says the leak in the pond was discovered at about 6 a.m. at the plant near Stevenson, Ala. He said most of the material flowed into a settling pond at the plant site, but some spilled into Widows Creek.

The federal utility says the leak of what it described as gypsum has stopped and it is repairing the pond. It doesn't have an estimate on much material spilled and the cause of the failure is under investigation.

This one has been kept pretty quiet in the media since then, but even if this particular incident wasn't too big, it still shows that coal waste isn't properly secured.

Image: Google Maps
Third Coal Ash Spill: Luke, Maryland (Upriver of Washington DC)
Maybe politicians will take notice:

On March 9, 2009, New Page Corp. at the pulp and paper mill located in the Town of Luke, Allegany County, reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) that a coal ash slurry spill had occurred into the North Branch Potomac River. Company officials advised that a pipeline that carries liquid ash from the Mill’s power plant to an ash storage lagoon in West Virginia had ruptured, allowing approximately 4,000 gallons of slurried ash to discharge directly into the river.

Like the Alabama spill, this one isn't anywhere near the scale of the Tennessee one, but any amount of coal ash in a river is too much.

This post continues on page 2!

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