Enforcement and Inspection, Environmental

Groups Call for Stronger Coal Ash Rules

A draft risk assessment published by the EPA reveals the potential for elevated cancer risk from radiation from the use of coal ash as fill material in building sites.

Coal ash is the residual “leftover” from burning coal for energy, and it contains many toxic metal contaminants like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

“Coal ash … is one of the largest waste streams in the U.S., with hundreds of millions of tons of it lying in hundreds of sites across the country,” notes the Kansas Reflector.

According to the EPA’s draft risk assessment, “Radioactivity is released from coal ash in subsurface deposits when ash is used as fill. EPA found cancer risks exceeding health standards when coal ash is mixed with soil at ratios that include very small amounts of coal ash (1%-2% of the soil mixture). When coal ash constitutes 8% of the soil mixture, EPA found cancer risks above 1 in 10,000 — the threshold for EPA regulation. These findings are alarming because coal ash used as fill is often not diluted nor covered with soil to shield its radioactivity.”

Two million tons of coal ash was used for fill material in 2021 alone, according to the trade group American Coal Ash Association (ACAA), the Kansas Reflector adds.

“Immense volumes of coal ash have historically been used as fill in the U.S. for more than a century,” according to an Earthjustice press release. “ACCA estimates that a total of 180 million tons of coal ash have been used in fill projects throughout the U.S. since 1980. If this coal ash was placed in box cars, the freight train would be long enough to circle the earth. Since most states do not regulate coal ash fill, safeguards are largely absent, and its use is likely underreported. Few states prohibit the placement of ash near drinking water wells, homes, or even playgrounds. To make matters worse, the use of coal ash as fill is rapidly increasing. This November, the ACAA reported that use of coal ash as structural fill rose by 40% from 2020 to 2021.”

“While the EPA has thankfully recently proposed safeguards to finally crack down on toxic coal ash left onsite at power plants, nothing prevents power plants from moving radioactive waste from their own backyards into the backyards and neighborhoods where American families live,” stated Attorney Lisa Evans in the Earthjustice press release.

As a result of the EPA draft risk assessment, which revealed additional radiation risks from coal ash, and a draft toxicological assessment of arsenic that finds its cancer potency is 35 times higher than previously acknowledged (released by the EPA in October 2023), more than 150 public interest groups, including Earthjustice, joined together to send the EPA a letter demanding immediate actions “to prevent further serious harm from coal ash (coal combustion residuals or ‘CCR’) used as fill in residential areas.”

The minimum action requested from the EPA in the letter is:

  1. Quantify the health risks via inhalation and ingestion posed by the use of coal ash as structural fill, particularly the risk from exposure to radiation.
  2. Investigate areas where coal ash fill has been placed near residences and requires cleanup.
  3. Initiate a rulemaking to prohibit the use of coal ash as structural fill.
  4. Issue a public advisory recommending that the use of coal ash fill in residential areas be immediately terminated pending a final rulemaking.

“… EPA’s current regulation of coal ash fill is grossly inadequate,” the letter states. “There are no restrictions whatsoever on placement of coal ash for volumes less than 12,400 tons. For larger volumes, the lack of enforceable safeguards and oversight is equally disastrous. In most states, coal ash fill can be placed directly next to or under dwellings, drinking water wells, aquifers and playgrounds.  Further, there is often no requirement to even cover the toxic waste.”

An EPA spokesperson said the letter would be reviewed and a response will be issued through “appropriate channels,” the Kansas Reflector says.

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