Coal Ash

Did you know that as Americans we burn about 20 pounds of coal per day per person? That’s because coal is still the fuel source for about a third of all the energy used in the country and slightly more than half of all our electricity. And, according to the National Academy of Sciences, our reliance upon coal and the electricity it generates is not going away—not for a long time anyway. So here’s where the story begins, with coal, and all the good things it produces as well as the bad. (Nat’l Academies, 2006,Managing Coal Combustion Residues in Mines, p.1; other ref).


What is Coal Ash?

Coal ash is the omnibus term for the solid materials left over after coal is burned. Sadly, as we have become more adept at controlling the noxious gases and the “acid rain” emitted from the smokestacks of our coal burning powering plants, we have redirected many of the same harmful chemicals to the particulates trapped in the bottom of furnaces (bottom ash) or in pollution collection devices (fly ash).

The burning of coal to produce electricity produces both exhausts and solid residues.  These residues include non-combustible materials left in the furnaces and ash that is carried up the smokestacks and collected by air pollution control technologies.  The use of more effective air pollution control equipment at coal-burning power plants during the last several decades has led to cleaner exhaust but, ironically, has also increased the amount of solid residues generated.  Greater demand for power and cleaner exhaust from coal combustion will continue to increase the amount of residues produced, making residue management a very important issue.

The National Academies, 2006

Source: Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center

The scope of this disposal problem is already overwhelming. Estimates of coal ash waste range from 59 to 75 million tons per year. To put this in perspective, every year we now generate enough coal ash to fill a million railroad cars. About a third of all fly ash is recycled into cement and construction products. The vast majority of coal ash, however, is dumped into landfills and lagoons. Below is a map that shows the location of the different disposal sites across the country.

Source: The Center for Public Integrity Feb 2009. Click the image for a searchable map.

Towards the end of the Clinton administration the EPA proposed that coal ash be treated as a hazardous material. Government estimates suggested that more stringent regulation would cost the power industry about 1 billion dollars a year but industry estimates suggested exponentially higher costs. The Bush administration opted for enlightened self-regulation and encouraged recycling of coal ash rather than more costly guidelines for safe disposal. To date, two types or classes of fly ash meet the ASTM standards for use in “cementious” materials . These are typically the byproducts of higher grades of coal. The coal ash produced by lower grades of coal — used with increasing frequency as the demand for cheap power escalates — have proven more difficult to recycle despite the emergence of an entire industry dedicated to its sale and reuse (the American Coal Ash Association).

With the construction of a new fly ash landfill in Narrows Virginia, Cumberland Park, on the flood plain of our beloved New River, we as a community group have begun to look more closely at the debate over coal ash, its benefits to the community and its risks. We are mindful, that like many disposal sites, our county is a rural one, rich in history and natural beauty but lacking the economic opportunities of some other suburban and urban areas. In the next section, we examine more specifically what fly ash is composed of, and what implications a fly ash landfill has for the health of our families and land.

What is Fly Ash?

Fly ash is a product of burning finely ground coal in a boiler to produce electricity. It is removed from the plant exhaust gases primarily by electrostatic precipitators, or baghouses and secondarily by scrubber systems. Physically, fly ash is a very fine, powdery material, composed mostly of silica nearly all particles are spherical in shape. Fly ash is generally light tan in color and consists mostly of silt-sized and clay-sized glassy spheres. This gives fly ash a consistency somewhat like talcum powder.


While there is good agreement on how fly ash and other coal waste is generated, there is less consensus about the chemical composition of coal combustion products (CCPs) and how much danger they pose to people and the environment.  According to Wikipedia, the components of fly ash vary considerably but all fly ash includes substantial amounts of silicon dioxide (SiO2) (and calcium oxide (CaO), which are common ingredients in many coal bearing rock strata. Toxic constituents depend upon the specific coal bed makeup, but may include one or more of the following substances in quantities from trace amounts to several percent: arsenic, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, chromium VI, cobalt, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, and vanadium, along with dioxins and PAH compounds.

Coal ash has been studied extensively for decades by universities and government regulatory agencies.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government bodies have determined that it is non-hazardous… Designating coal ash as hazardous or toxic is counter to scientific evidence and would seriously limit the current widespread uses of these materials today.

American Coal Ash Association Educational Foundation

An August 2007 draft report prepared for the [EPA] analyzed hazards associated with ponds and landfills, …the threats arise when utilities dump the waste in unlined or partially lined ponds and pits, …Indeed, the analysis determined such sites pose a cancer risk from arsenic at 900 times the level of what was deemed safe. … Some EPA scientists believe that recent toxicity data would double the assessment of the hazards.

The Center for Public Integrity

Source: American Coal Ash Association

Peeling away partisan rhetoric it becomes clear that coal ash contains toxic heavy metals.  Even the graph presented by the American Coal Ash Association on their website (shown here) indicates that there are higher amounts of most trace metals in fly ash (gray line in graph) than in either the surrounding West Virginia soil or the coal itself (blue and red lines). Arguments tend instead to focus on the levels of hazardous metals in the ash and on the ability to contain the flow of these metals into groundwater and surrounding soil.

An increasing amount of evidence indicates that the characteristics of coal combustion wastewater have the potential to impact human health and the environment

Many of the common pollutants found in the coal combustion wastewater (e.g. selenium, mercury, and arsenic) are known to cause environmental harm and can potentially represent a human health risk.

EPA 2009

As EPA, the CDC and others work to resolve the question of how much heavy metal is too much, we can assemble what we do know to help assess our risks. So, for example, we do know that communities adjacent to coal ash disposal facilities have cancer rates that greatly exceed the national average. We do know that relatively small or “trace” amounts of coal ash pollutants can have serious deleterious effects on human health. (See table below.) And we do know that that a number of heavy metals are bioaccumulators, which means that the level of toxins in our bodies increases as we drink from contaminated aquifers, eat fish from contaminated streams, eat vegetables from contaminated gardens and even breath the air where pollutants have been released through burning or transport of coal.

Source: Earthjustice

Living in Giles county these facts hit home. The 2006 health statistics profile for our community indicates we are already exhibit a much higher level of health problems than the rest of the state or the country. In addition, pollutants in the New River have prompted the Virginia Department of Health to advise limited consumption of fish caught in the New River’s waters.  If someone had tried to put a nuclear power plant in our county we would have been up in arms, but because fly ash “looks like talcum powder” we are less apt to worry about its effects. In fact, a 2007 Scientific American article reports  that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste-but that is far from the worst threat it poses.

Where Does the Ash Go?

Each year, coal-fired power plants dispose of over 100 million tons of coal combustion wastes (CCW’s).  These wastes are put in wet ponds, mines, and landfills.  Many disposal sites are unlined and not monitored.  EPA’s latest estimate of the number of coal ash waste ponds has recently increased 40% (from 300 to 427).

In Virginia, there is a “beneficial use “clause in DEQ regulations which allows fly ash to be used as structural “fill”.  When this is the case, there are few rules.  The site chosen for the ash to be dumped does not require a liner, nor does it require monitoring.  The fact is, if the “beneficial use” clause is used, coal waste is subject to far less regulation than household garbage!
Nationwide, CCW’s have contributed to contamination of water.  There has been both public and private drinking water contamination in at least eight states: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Georgia, and Maryland.  New contaminated sites are being discovered with alarming frequency.  Included sites are: Faulkner Landfill, Charles County MD; Battlefield Golf Course, Chesapeake, VA; PPL Montana Power Plant, Colstrip, Montana; Gambrills Fly Ash Site, Anne Arundel County, MD.   ( Testimony of Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, before U.S. House of Representatives, June 10, 2008)

What about the EPA?

Congress first asked the EPA to study possible standards for managing coal combustion waste in 1980. Decades passed without meaningful action.

A 2002 screening study, the precursor of the EPA’s 2007 Risk Assessment, identified astronomical cancer risks and dangers to aquatic life from coal ash dumps, but it was not made public until March 4, 2009 –seven years after it publication. Freedom of Information Act requests to EPA during the Bush administration were denied or resulted in the production of documents with the cancer and non-cancer risk estimates blacked out. What was being hidden and why? Key findings from the study include:

  • Cancer risk for up to 1 in 50 for residents from arsenic leaching into drinking water
  • Higher risk for non-cancer illnesses from lead; liver, kidney, nervous system
  • Threat from coal ash sites can last longer than 100 years
  • The number of clay lined and unlined ash ponds and landfills is likely to be double the previous estimate
  • There are “Eye-popping” risks to aquatic ecosystems and wildlife; ash ponds are predicted to leak boron into surface water in concentrations up to 2000 times the estimated safe level; landfills will release boron at levels 200 times above the safe level

For full text of the summary of the report, Coming CleanWhat the EPA Knows About the Dangers of Coal Ash, and related charts, go to

Recent News

EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, has promised a decision on regulating CCW as hazardous by December 2009.

An October 15 news release from EPA announced a plan to retool and reinvigorate the clean water enforcement program. Last July, Administrator Jackson directed EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance to develop the plan in response to data showing that the nation’s water quality is unacceptably low in many parts of the country.

More information on the plan: