June – Is Coal Ash Hazardous or Not? (Part 3 of the Coal Ash Series)

In the last couple of posts, we have discussed the difficulty (and expense) of disposing of coal ash in NC. The real difficulty appears to be in deciding if coal ash is hazardous or not. Even the “experts” disagree.

On one hand, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Obama administration determined in 2014 that “regulating coal ash as hazardous waste is not warranted”. Instead, the “beneficial use” of coal ash was encouraged in making cement and wallboard products and as structural fill in large construction projects, such as airports.

On the other hand, many environmental groups refer to coal ash as “toxic pollution” and worry that groundwater near coal ash sites could see elevated levels of materials such as arsenic and vanadium.

New state requirements apparently reflect a compromise that requires disposing of about 12 percent of the 100 million tons of coal ash as if it were hazardous waste. The scale of that requirement is hard to imagine. Think of 1.3 million 10-ton dump trucks lined up bumper-to-bumper for nearly 6,000 miles.

Even so, we understand that some environmental groups have asked the courts to require the removal of all 100 million tons of coal ash as if it were hazardous waste.

Last month we discussed the difficulty of determining the perception of health risks associated with elevated (but still very, very low) concentrations of naturally occurring minerals. With vanadium and other similar materials, the subject is even more confusing because the EPA has not established a standard for vanadium in drinking water.

This confusion leads to strange results. At one point in 2015, NC officials issued “do not drink” orders for 400 private wells near Duke Energy coal ash sites primarily due to concerns about elevated trace amounts of vanadium. Meanwhile, local vitamin shops are still selling vanadium pills ($8 for 100 tablets) as a dietary supplement to “improve your glucose metabolism”.

Unfortunately, current state requirements avoid the direct question:  Is coal ash hazardous or not?

If coal ash (or the associated levels of minerals such as vanadium) is hazardous, we should consistently treat it as such. If it’s not, why should we spend $5 billion on a compromise that apparently pleases no one?

Questions or comments about coal ash disposal in NC?  Please let us know at mac@wemc.com.