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.