The NY Times presents some required reading about how improvements in air pollution control technology can have the unpleasant consequence of putting pollution into our waterways. The problem of contaminated coal ash is one that CLF has engaged for years – back in the year 2000 CLF negotiated a successful settlement with the then-owner of the Salem Harbor and Brayton Point power plants (PG&E) that cleaned up groundwater and land that had been contaminated by toxic coal ash over the course of decades – a settlement that predates the purchase of those power plants (out of bankruptcy) by Dominion – company that has its own checkered history regarding coal ash disposal.
Another manifestation of the same problem comes from the longstanding practice of using ash from coal fired powerplants as a “feedstock” for cement – iconic concrete structures containing coal ash include the Hoover dam, vast swaths of interstate highways and the tunnels and stations of the Washington DC metro.
More recently, coal plants have been awarded “carbon offsets” for selling ash to cement companies on the theory that use of ash “displaces” industrial kilns that produce greenhouse gas pollution while making cement. Many organizations, including CLF, have expressed strong doubts about this practice – noting that it is simply paying coal plant owners once again for something they would have been doing anyway: turning a waste product into a revenue producing commodity. A far better course of action, rather than create “rip offsets” that undermine climate protection while bestowing a windfall on polluters is to encourage processes and procedures that slash greenhouse gas emissions from cement kilns.
The increasing levels of toxic metals in the ash as air pollution regulations have tightened, is bringing an end to the practice of using fly ash in cement in projects designated as green under the LEED program of the U.S. Green Building Council and the innovative Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (CHPS). Academic research strongly suggests that this is increasingly dangerous practice.
The bottom line is clear: coal is laden with toxic materials, and converting coal into energy, whether it be through burning it in the oldest or newest of plants (or even gasifying it) releases these materials creating a serious toxic waste handling and disposal issue with potentially catastrophic effects if done badly.