Coal combustion waste – why you should care now

I grew up in a coal-heated house. Living in northwest Colorado, with many coal mines in the area, many houses had coal furnaces.

I still like the smell of coal smoke; it reminds me of playing outside on a winter afternoon. One of my favorite chores was cleaning out the coal ash and “clinkers,” the big molten chunks of lava-like ash, from the furnace. It was hot, dirty and just right for a young teen.

As with many things, what is quaint to a teen when done on a small scale, is quite different when done on an industrial scale. Coal is a dirty fuel, meaning that a lot of what is put in the furnace doesn’t burn into gases and heat. There is a lot of solid waste, whether as very fine ash that goes up the chimney and out as visible air pollution, or as larger waste that stays in the bottom of the furnace or cakes the sides of the furnace.

The amounts are not quaint, either. In San Juan County, N.M., where there are the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station, over 150 million tons of coal combustion waste have been dumped into either the mines that feed the plants, or in ponds near the San Juan River.

What is the problem with a bit, or a lot, of coal waste? Let’s just say it ain’t clean. Again, for our two local large plants, in 2010 (the last year we have data) more than 4 million pounds of barium compounds, more than 20,000 pounds of arsenic compounds, over 135,000 pounds of chromium compounds and more than 180,000 pounds of selenium compounds were dumped. These are large amounts of some of the most toxic compounds.

The disposal of coal ash nationwide is a problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that living next to a coal ash site can significantly increase your risk of cancer, and it is worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Unfortunately, the powers that be want to keep it that way. There have been attempts to prevent scientific analysis of coal waste, and to prevent the regulation of it as hazardous or toxic, even if it clearly is, for many years.

On Aug. 2, a new attempt to prevent meaningful regulation of coal ash was introduced in the U.S. Senate.

This bill, The Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act, is nothing more than a political cover-up of a massive problem. It will fail to prevent harm, it will fail to create jobs and it will fail to increase the recycling of coal ash.

Most stupidly of all, to me, is that it prevents public policy to be guided by science. It prevents the EPA from ever regulating coal combustion waste, regardless of how toxic it is. Science is not the only tool for making policy decisions, but in some cases it clearly can help. Why purposefully ignore scientific evidence? Must be because you know there is something bad. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.