Toxic Propaganda

Since the failure of a Tennessee coal ash disposal pond over a year ago, the phrase “toxic coal ash” has become a favorite of environmental news reporters everywhere.  Too bad most of them have never bothered to consider what “toxic” really means.

            Some environmental reporters think a material must be toxic if it has heavy metals such as mercury or arsenic in it.  But testing data from the Electric Power Research Institute clearly shows that trace elements collectively comprise less than 1 percent of coal ash volume.  Furthermore, the levels of these metals in coal ash are similar to the levels found in everyday rocks.



            More important than whether metals are present in a given material – there is mercury in your dental fillings and your new compact fluorescent light bulbs, after all – is whether the metals can get out of the material and into you.  Once again, Electric Power Research Institute data shows that the leaching potential of metals in coal ash is well below acceptable limits.




            So just how toxic is “toxic coal ash?”  It falls well short of the levels defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to qualify as a hazardous waste.  Coal ash is also far more benign than municipal solid waste – a material regulated by states and safely handled by communities big and small.  Municipal solid waste leachate is more noxious than ash leachate, is biologically active, emits explosive gases, contains sewage sludge ash as a component, attracts rodents and birds, and so on. None of these conditions can be found in coal ash.

            Improving standards for disposal of coal ash can be accomplished without falsely labeling the material as “toxic.”  And reporters can be more careful about using words that incite unnecessary fear.


Posted by: on: Feb 04, 2010 @ 05:40