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

11:00 AM PDT on October 5, 2009


Watch CBS News Videos Online

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.

Using
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.

A
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
ash.

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:

<

Ialso understand that EPA may consider a hybrid approach to regulatingthe material so that the beneficial use of fly ash is deemednon-hazardous but the material that remains would be classifiedhazardous. We've been advised that if the EPA decides to implementeither of these approaches, concrete producers would have to use anaverage of more than 15 to 20 percent more cement per yard of concreteto 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.

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