Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Coal Ash on 60 Minutes

Thanks to a reader's tip last week (although I'm just getting to it today), I watched a piece on 60 Minutes about coal ash. The story is a follow-up to a huge spill of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant in Kingston, TN in December 2008. A wall of a retention pond broke and approximately one billion gallons of coal ash-infused water flowed down the Emory River creating a huge toxic mess.

The link above should play the video (including a commercial for Viagra!). Here is a link to a written story and another link to the video.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal. Approximately 130 million tons of coal ash is generated, containing significant amounts of the following chemicals: arsenic (43.4 ppm); barium (806 ppm); beryllium (5 ppm); boron (311 ppm); cadmium (3.4 ppm); chromium (136 ppm); chromium VI (90 ppm); cobalt (35.9 ppm); copper (112 ppm); fluorine (29 ppm); lead (56 ppm); manganese (250 ppm); nickel (77.6 ppm); selenium (7.7 ppm); strontium (775 ppm); thallium (9 ppm); vanadium (252 ppm); and zinc (178 ppm) (source: wikipedia).

The vast volume of coal ash creates a disposal problem. Clearly storing massive quantities is not a great solution as the folks downriver of Kingston found out. The 60 Minutes story delves into a golf course that used recycled coal ash in its construction and the class lawsuits that have followed. Coal ash disposal is regulated on a state-by-state basis. One of the unanswered questions is whether or not the EPA will step in and create federal guidelines for the disposal and/or designate coal ash a toxic waste product. Given the coal lobby's strength in Washington, I doubt you'll see it designated as toxic waste, but the is the EPA and not Congress, so there is a chance it will happen.

Generally I find 60 Minutes and similar shows to be a little hysterical and one-sided, but the basic story behind the drama is worth considering. Coal, which generates just under half of the electricity used in our country, is responsible for water pollution and other environmental damage when it is mined, air pollution when it is burned and large quantities of quasi-toxic ash as a physical byproduct. If it weren't for the Kingston accident, the general population never would have heard about coal ash. Great stuff, this coal.

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