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Coal ash conundrum

Last week, the Bugle published an article concerning a recent National Research Council study on the hidden health and environmental consequences of power production in the U.S. The study found that we pay, as a nation, about $120 billion per year, mostly in increased health problems and early deaths for our reliance on fossil fuels.

Along the same lines, a new report by EPA discusses how we also pay a price for the many toxic pollutants produced by coal-fired power plants. Following the massive spill of coal ash in Tennessee, the new report shows that many of the toxins are much less obvious, but can accumulate in our environment for many years causing a wide range of problems for humans and aquatic life. “EPA found the interaction of coal combustion wastewaters with the environment has caused a wide range of environmental effects to aquatic life.

Burning coal is the most filthy way we have yet found to produce electricity. Pollutants leach from raw coal as it is piled up to burn. Ash from burning coal contains many pollutants that have to be disposed of. Toxins are scrubbed from smokestacks and they all have to go somewhere. For the most part, the pollution still goes is into our waterways, groundwaters and drinking water.

Numerous studies have shown that the pollutants found in wastewater associated with coal combustion wastes can impact aquatic organisms and wildlife, and can result in lasting environmental impacts on local habitats and ecosystems. Many of these impacts may not be realized for years due to the persistent and bioaccumulative nature of the pollutants released. The total amount of toxic pollutants currently being released in wastewater discharges from coal-fired power plants is estimated to be significant and raises concerns regarding the long-term impacts to aquatic organisms, wildlife, and human health that are exposed to these pollutants.

Exposure to coal combustion wastewater has been associated with fish kills, reductions in the growth and survival of aquatic organisms, behavioral and physiological effects in wildlife and aquatic organisms, potential impacts to human health (i.e., drinking water contamination), and changes to the local habitat. The bioaccumulative properties of several coal combustion wastewater pollutants and long recovery times associated with many of the ecological impacts emphasize the potential threat these wastes present to the local environment. Research published in the scientific literature demonstrates that coal combustion wastewater is not a benign waste and further study is needed to fully understand how these chemically complex waste streams interact with the environment.

Pollutants found in coal ash wastewaters such as selenium, mercury and arsenic have been tied to fish kills and reproductive and organ failures in fish, reptiles and birds. They are also known to cause environmental harm and are health risks to humans. High nutrient loads from coal waste can lead to eutrophication in the receiving waters. Pollutants released in relatively small amounts into the environment accumulate over time until they reach toxic levels. They can also accumulate in fish and human tissue and the high levels can be passed to offspring.

Even though opposed by the coal industry, EPA is to be commended for at least beginning to take seriously the toxic nature of waste produced from burning coal. EPA has said that it will decide by the end of the year whether or not to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste.


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