What is Coal Ash?

Coal ash, also commonly called fly ash, is the waste produced in the production of energy through coal-fired power plants. Most ash is stored on site at the energy production facilities, and usually stored wet in containment ponds or dams. Pollutants are prone to leaching from the ash into the environment.

Contaminants and toxins in coal ash include arsenic, lead, barium, chromium and manganese. According to a recent report released by the Environmental Integrity Project, between 2000 and 2006, the power industry reported depositing coal ash containing more than 124 million pounds of toxic pollutants into surface impoundments.

 

Two of the more serious health hazards are posed by arsenic and lead. Findings of the EIP report include:

ARSENIC

Alabama has the largest concentration of Top 10 arsenic coal pollution dump sites, accounting for three of the heaviest concentration sites for 2000-2006. No. 2 – Gaston Steam Plant, Wilsonville, Ala.; No. 3 – Alabama Power Co. Gorgas Steam Plant, Parrish, Ala.; No. 9 – Alabama Power Co. Greene County Steam Plant, Forkland, Ala. By comparison, the TVA Kingston plant was No. 20.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people can experience acute and/or chronic arsenic poisoning through exposure through drinking water. Immediate symptoms of acute poisoning may include vomiting, esophogeal and abdominal pain and bloody “rice water” diarrhea. Long term exposure to arsenic via drinking water causes cancer of the skin, lungs, urinary bladder and kidney, as well as other skin changes such as pigmentation and thickening. WHO says increased risks of lung and bladder cancer and of arsenic-associated skin lesions have been observed at drinking-water arsenic concentrations of less than 0.05 mg/L. They report cancer is a long-term phenomenon that may take more than 10 years to develop.

LEAD

The Stanton Energy The Stanton Energy Center in Orlando, FL., has the dubious distinction of being the worst plant dumping site in terms of both arsenic (see above) and lead. Another TVA site – Paradise Fossil Plant, Drakesbore, KY. – is No. 3 on the list of worst plants for lead pollution storage. At least 19 plants reported releasing more lead to surface impoundments than Kingston.

WHO reports that chronic, low-level exposure to lead, even at relatively low levels, may have such severe effects as anemia, malaise, and damage to the nervous system. They say children are particularly vulnerable to neurotoxic effects of lead. Relatively low levels of exposure can reduce their IQ scores, cause learning disabilities, poor school performance, and violent behavior, all of which may contribute to reduced lifetime earnings. Acute lead poisoning may cause severe headaches, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, lethargy and even coma. In severe cases, a life-threatening encephalitis can develop, which ends up in death or in irreversible neurological sequelae. However, WHO says low-level lead exposure is more common, resulting in unspecific signs and symptoms, which may lead to it remaining undiagnosed.