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Coal Ash Disposal on Old Surface Mines: "Beneficial" to Whom?

One important method of coal-ash disposal may leave West Virginia's waters vulnerable to heavy metal contamination. (Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices)

One important method of coal-ash disposal may leave West Virginia's waters vulnerable to heavy metal contamination. (Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices)
January 4, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A loophole for disposal of toxic coal ash is being widely misused across northern West Virginia, according to experts worried about heavy metals leaching into creeks and rivers.

As the U.S. wrestles with how to dispose of decades worth of coal ash, Jim Kotcon, Energy Committee chairman with the Sierra Club West Virginia Chapter, says as much as 40 percent of current disposal falls under a "beneficial use" exemption, despite the ash containing mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium, among other toxins.

He says the state's waters are vulnerable with this kind of disposal.

"In most cases, that means it is being carried to surface mines, dumped on the ground for so-called soil remediation or acid mine drainage treatment," says Kotcon.

Under pressure from coal and power plant allies in Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the ash as a "special waste" rather than a "hazardous waste." The U.S. still produces about 140 million tons of coal ash a year, one of the largest kinds of solid waste by weight. Some ends up being used to make products like paper and wallboard, but it's a small fraction of the total.

Most of the ash goes into landfills or temporary impoundments. The federal Office of Surface Mining is now writing rules for placing it on old mine sites. Congressman David McKinley has forcefully defended what he describes as coal ash "recycling." He argues that its use, in industries like paper-making, supports jobs. And he sponsored a bill to make the 'special waste' designation permanent.

"Three hundred-and-sixteen thousand jobs are at risk," says McKinley. "What we're trying to do is codify that provision, so that we've removed the uncertainty for the recyclers."

Kotcon says calling it "recycling" disguises the fact that in most cases of "beneficial use," the ash is just dumped on the ground or mixed with the soil. He says according to the EPA, that's the worst thing that can be done with the ash, given the likelihood of leaching into surface and ground water.

"And yet, there is very little regulation or monitoring of what happens to the heavy metals from these sites. We're just not monitoring it, and we don't have a good handle on where it's happening," says Kotcon.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV