60-Second Earth

Buried in Coal Ash?

After yet another coal ash spill, is there anything that can be done to deal with the toxic waste? David Biello reports

The U.S. burns 900 million metric tons of coal per year. The combustion produces billions of tons of CO2, but also more than 100 million metric tons of coal ash, which includes nasty stuff like mercury and lead.

There's so much coal ash that it's hard to find places to put it. It ends up in old coal mines. It ends up in cement. It even ends up in farmer's fields.

But most often it’s put into dumps near coal-fired power plants. These ponds and landfills have a tendency to fail—witness the coal ash collapse into Lake Michigan this week or the big spill in December 2008 that annihilated a swath of the Emory and Clinch rivers in Tennessee.

The EPA is studying which coal ash piles are most dangerous. At the same time, coal companies and electric utilities are fighting proposed EPA rules that might class coal ash as hazardous waste, since that would make disposal more expensive.

Of course, the only way to truly solve the coal ash problem is to stop burning coal. Which makes the elimination of coal ash yet another reason to invest in the development of alternative energy.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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