The Dirty Secret of Coal Ash: It’s in Our Roads

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Last night’s 60 Minutes featured an eye-opening report
(viewable above) on the 130 million tons of coal ash waste generated
every year by the nation’s thirst for energy. The show outlined the
lack of oversight over disposal of the toxic ash, which is routinely
used in the most commonplace of areas: concrete.

In its fact sheet
on fly ash — as the by-products of coal burning is sometimes called —
the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) touts the "economic and
ecological benefits" of using the substance in the asphalt that paves
U.S. roadways.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has joined the effort by partnering with industry interests on the Coal Combustion Projects Partnership, which has the stated goal
of "decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from avoided cement
manufacturing" by using coal ash as an additive — notwithstanding the
emissions that created the coal ash in the first place.

coal ash in local streets, making concrete stronger and cheaper to
produce has become an accepted practice because the mixing process is
thought to trap the toxic ingredients. But in the wake of last year’s
massive coal ash spill in Tennessee, environmental groups are raising questions about possible public health risks and the EPA is signaling it will begin regulating the ash.

final decision on new rules for coal ash is expected by December, EPA
chief Lisa Jackson told 60 Minutes yesterday. Still, it’s worth noting
that concrete companies are already pushing back against the idea,
warning that the bills for local transportation projects would swell
even if the EPA continues to consider roads a "beneficial" use for coal

During Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s
appearance in the House infrastructure committee late last week, Rep.
Howard Coble (R-NC) queried him on the prospect of coal ash regulation.
Coble said:


also understand that EPA may consider a hybrid approach to regulating
the material so that the beneficial use of fly ash is deemed
non-hazardous but the material that remains would be classified
hazardous. We’ve been advised that if the EPA decides to implement
either of these approaches, concrete producers would have to use an
average of more than 15 to 20 percent more cement per yard of concrete
to replace the fly ash.

Could concrete producers successfully lobby to water down the impact of the EPA’s move? In a city where every industry has sway in the race for campaign cash, it’s certainly possible.

  • ZA

    It’s actually pretty difficult to make a categorical statement about ash and its uses. Not all ash is the same, and in many cases is not toxic, or is inert. Putting it behind poorly-built dams in a wet slurry is obviously not a good solution for it, especially for the communities that have lived with the risks of dam failure for so long. So the question we need to answer is how do we want to deal with it?

    It’s certainly true that it’d be better for almost all concerned if that ash was still coal in a seam underground with trees and grass on top. But since we have these lakes of ash, some wet, some dry, we can’t continue to ignore them.

    As for the roadway, it does make concrete stronger, if you let it cure longer. Of course it’d sure be nice to know the exact chemical makeup of the ash being used in the mix, and what (if any) special handling it needs when you eventually decide to tear that roadway up again.

  • Susan

    This is horrific. EPA needs to regulate coal ash as toxic waste.

    Here is a way people can take action to push the EPA in the right direction.

  • Winston

    Recycling fly ash into concrete is a very good idea. It can be used to replace up to 1/3 of the portland cement in concrete, vastly reducing the CO2 emissions of producing the concrete. It is also a useful material for a few other things. Given that we have generate nearly 1000 lbs of the stuff per person in the U.S. recycling it is critical. Of course, we also need to produce much less of it.



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