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By Frank J. Dinan

Several Eastern states are litigating over gases from coal-fired power plants in Midwestern states blown east by the prevailing winds. This dispute, however resolved, distracts our attention from another very serious, but far less recognized, problem: coal ash.

When the coal lobby says advanced technology has made the use of clean coal possible, it is referring to gases emitted by these plants. Technologies now filter much of the black particles that once darkened coal smoke, lightening its color. However, these particles accumulate in the coal ash, and each year, our approximately 400 coal-fired electrical generating plants generate about 130 million tons of toxic ash.

Some of this ash is used in gypsum board and concrete or placed in abandoned mines. More goes to landfills or is spread on land where its toxic metals can be incorporated into crops. Amazingly though, no one knows where the majority of this coal ash goes. Every state decides how its coal ash may be used, stored and disposed of.

Often, the ash is held in giant ponds, one of which burst on Dec. 23, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired power plant, releasing a billion-gallon flood of toxic ash slurry into the surrounding community. The flood covered more than 300 acres, left ash up to 6 feet deep in places and entered the nearby Emory and Tennessee rivers, contaminating the region’s water supply.

All coal contains toxic metals, including arsenic, mercury, selenium, thallium, etc., and these are concentrated in its ash. EPA tests of the Emory River’s water showed arsenic concentrations 149 times greater than the federal limit for safe drinking water. Lead and thallium levels were also found to far exceed these limits. The TVA cautioned area residents to boil their water before drinking it, but this would not remove the toxic metals it contained. Five years later, little has changed.

Since 2007, the EPA has identified many “proven or potential damage cases” where coal ash has caused ecological contamination. These have occurred in states as widespread as Maryland, Virginia, Michigan, Montana and New Mexico. The Maryland spill threatened the water supply of the Washington, D.C., metro area. Most recently, a slurry of coal ash and mud generated by a coal-fired power plant in Milwaukee County, Wis., slid into Lake Michigan, creating a debris field 120 yards long.

Despite these incidents, Congress, deferring to the power of the coal lobby, has failed to pass meaningful federal regulations to control this massive public health hazard. As long as coal ash is not subject to reasonable control, “clean coal” will always remain a fiction and coal’s danger to us all will remain a threat to us all.

Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Canisius College with a long-term interest in the coal ash problem.