Coal is dirty. That is an unsurprising fact of coal, every process involving coal is dirty. Mining coal is extremely energy intensive and can destroy whole ecosystems, burning coal produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide, but perhaps the dirtiest part of coal is disposing of coal ash.
The United States burns over 800 million tons of coal each year to produce 30% of its energy. This burning of coal produces 110 million tons of coal ash annually according to the EPA. Coal is really just ancient carbonized plants, burning it produces millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually and disrupts the Earth’s carbon cycle. Once the coal is burnt and has released all of its possible potential energy, the remanence is ash, just like you would find in your fireplace, only this ash has a deadly secret. It contains lead, arsenic, mercury, chlorine, chromium, barium, and selenium. Despite its toxic nature, coal ash is considered “non-hazardous waste”. That’s right, waste that contains toxic levels of lead and arsenic can be considered non-hazardous.
So, what does the United States do with this “non-hazardous”, yet very toxic coal ash? The ash is typically put into ditches and filling it with water, but these coal ash ponds are more than often unlined, so the toxic coal ash comes in direct contact with the surrounding environment. The coal ash in unlined ponds can easily leach into the ground and contaminate nearby water sources with its deadly toxins. Coal Ash is the second largest industrial waste stream and it only saw the first set of regulations in 2015. Only after there have been over 200 known coal ash spills and contamination events. The new regulation requires that all coal ash ponds must be lined and companies must regularly inspect their ponds, which is a step in the right direction, but the simple fact is that this waste is toxic and needs to be treated as such.
People living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond have a 2,000 times greater risk of having cancer than what is deemed safe by the EPA. Communities near unlined coal ash ponds are drinking water poisoned by lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals. A coal ash pond in Tennessee failed in 2008 and flooded 3,000 acres and poisoned communities. Not regulating coal ash as the toxic and hazardous waste that it is doesn’t help families or communities, it only aids big coal industries. America, we deserve better, we deserve our government to put families and communities before big polluting corporations.