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The silent menace: Utah’s coal ash problem

The polluting power of coal has been widely stated: burning coal produces smog, causes acid rain, contributes to climate change and contaminates water supplies. But these common facts overlook the impact of another major harmful coal byproduct: coal ash.

By nature, all coal contains a certain amount of radioactive and toxic materials. As coal is burned for energy, the organic compounds in it are consumed, leaving behind concentrated amounts of toxins and heavy metals, including uranium, arsenic, lead, and other carcinogens, in the form of coal ash (see this link, too).

The ash is stored in massive ponds (for liquid ash) or landfills (for solid ash) near power plants, many of which are located close to cities and towns. Many ponds and landfills are also unlined, meaning that they lack any barrier between the ash and the ground – making contamination of the groundwater alarmingly easy.

The environmental and health hazards of coal ash have been well documented, including increased rates of cancer, birth defects, asthma, heart damage, mental and physical developmental disabilities in children, reproductive failure and other illnesses. According to the Sierra Club, “people living within 1 mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer—more than 2,000 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable.”

Groundwater pollution poses another danger as heavy metals can contaminate drinking water sources and magnify the range and potency of health problems. Such contamination also poses a major threat to wildlife, especially because toxins build up in plants and animals and move up the food chain, magnifying the range and strength of the pollutants.

Coal ash has also been the cause of several major disasters, such as the 2008 crisis in Tennessee where over 5.4 million cubic yards of liquid coal ash spilled from a local power plant and flooded the surrounding city and river. More recently, nearly 82,000 tons of coal ash spilled into a source of drinking water for cities in North Carolina and Virginia this February.

While Utah has not yet been the victim of such a large-scale environmental disaster, we are certainly not immune from the dangers of coal ash. According to a 2006 report by the EPA, Utah generated 2.3 million tons of coal ash per year between 1994 and 2004, the 18th highest amount in the nation. Though a detailed EPA analysis has not been done for coal ash landfills in Utah, a routine EPA assessment in 2007 found that landfills and ponds at the Intermountain Power Project, Utah’s largest power plant, and the Huntington Power Plant were unlined. The Intermountain plant also has no system to prevent particles from leaching into the earth–the Huntington plant fails to even monitor for groundwater contamination.

Even more concerning, very few protections currently exist to prevent heavy metals from seeping into the groundwater or contaminating the air around landfills as the ash gets blown around by the wind. Federal action to regulate the harmful coal byproduct is sluggish, at best.

As of now, coal ash is unregulated by the EPA, and five years after the Tennessee spill sparked calls for reform and regulation, the agency has still not turned out many tangible results. The EPA faces a court-imposed December 19 deadline to regulate coal ash ponds, but don’t hold your breath – the agency already missed a May 22 deadline and there has been little clarity on what form final regulations will take and how effective they will be.

Among state lawmakers, concern about coal ash seems to be almost non-existent: the state of Utah has repeatedly approved expansions of landfills that go unlined, at the detriment of Utahns’ well being. In fact, this year the state approved a 34-acre unlined expansion of the landfill at the Sunnyside Cogeneration Facility. The enormous volume of coal ash in Utah, coupled with the overwhelming lack of regulation, leaves Utahns subject to the slow, insidious contamination of coal ash toxins and vulnerable to a potential future disaster.

HEAL Utah has taken the lead in encouraging state lawmakers to enact stricter regulations of coal ash landfills and has conducted several reports detailing coal ash contamination, but the state has failed to respond effectively. Greater public pressure and awareness about the dangers of unregulated coal ash is critical to persuading lawmakers of the urgency of this problem – without having to wait for a catastrophe to do the persuading for us.

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