Is There a Better Way to Handle Coal Ash?

The coal industry seems to believe that coal ash recycling is a reasonable alternative to coal ash landfills. The US EPA agrees with the coal industry and issued guidance on coal ash recycling just about one year ago. Just last month, the EPA released regulations on the disposition of coal combustion residuals; the jury is still out on whether those regulations will have a positive effect on the environment or just encourage more pollution.

Coal combustion residuals are already being recycled. It has been estimated that 40% of coal ash is reused currently, much of it in building products such as concrete and wallboard. The consensus is that recycling coal ash for use in concrete is the safer of those options. One question is whether more coal ash can be recycled in concrete or whether we are at the limit of its use; Duke Energy, creator of the infamous Dan River disaster, thinks it’s better to fill in mines hundreds of miles away.

Coal ash landfills and mine fills are highly risky propositions and no amount of spin can make them otherwise. Risk is a matter of likelihood and impact. The likelihood of fill failures is, oddly enough, the subject of some debate; the impact of fill failures is not. The designers, proponents, and users of coal ash landfills are failing us.

Ameren-Missouri has failed the public on a number of occasions. One of the most disturbing incidents of Ameren mismanagement is the 2005 Taum Sauk reservoir failure. Regardless of whether the electric utility did not know what went wrong on that occasion or obfuscated, they gave us the uneasy feeling that they don’t know how – or don’t care – to do their job effectively.

The Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC), like those of so many other states, has failed the public on numerous occasions. Public service commissions are generally viewed known as rubber-stamp agencies, beholden to energy producers and getting them the “help” they so desperately need, ignoring the needs of an important group of stakeholders – consumers – in the process.

Finally, the EPA has failed the public, most recently by passing a rule a month ago that under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), coal ash is considered a non-hazardous waste. In spite of all the evidence that dangerous heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic, leach from coal ash landfills and result in serious health and environmental problems, the EPA is letting down its greatest number of stakeholders – those of us who have to live with the results of their misguided decisions.

Not only should Ameren not have been given the green light to operate the Labadie coal ash landfill in the Missouri River flood plain – Ameren should undergo more frequent, careful, and thorough environmental system audits to ensure their compliance with standards and regulations.  Furthermore, we’re long overdue for a change in the way Missouri PSC board members are appointed.

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Posted in Accountability, Business ethics, coal ash, environment, environmental risk, ISO 14001, landfills, Risk Management

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