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Coal Ash and Household Trash – How Do They Compare?

In advancing a bill that would regulate coal ash disposal without creating an unwarranted “hazardous waste” stigma for coal ash, members of Congress are creating a states-led regulatory program patterned after one that already works well for municipal solid waste – also known as “MSW” or “household garbage.”  (See here for more background on HR 2273.)

Some anti-coal environmental activists have responded by saying that “coal ash would receive no higher regulation than household garbage” – thereby implying that higher regulation is necessary to protect human health and the environment. But is it?

Research conducted by Dr. Lisa Bradley of AECOM for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) recently compared the toxicity of leachate from coal ash landfills and impoundments with that of MSW landfills. Based on the results of this risk-based comparison, it can be concluded that the relative human health risks associated with leachates from MSW landfills and coal ash disposal facilities are similar.

While toxicity risks are similar, the EPRI report points out that managing an MSW disposal facility is much more complicated than managing coal ash disposal.  Coal ash is typically disposed in “monofills” containing a single, homogenous type of inorganic material. MSW landfills have a wide variety of contents including residential food scraps, yard trimmings, wood, metals, plastics, glass, and other materials. Furthermore, because of the organic nature of much of the MSW landfill contents, methane gas is produced by the natural breakdown of these contents. Methane is flammable and explosive, as well as a potent greenhouse gas.

More than 240 million tons of MSW are generated in the United States each year, compared to approximately 135 million tons of coal ash. States operate effective regulatory programs for the disposal of MSW at more than 1,900 locations and are more than capable of doing the same for coal ash – a material with similar toxicity risks and fewer management problems.

For a complete copy of the EPRI report, click here. A presentation summarizing the report that was given by Dr. Bradley at the recent World of Coal Ash symposium can be found here.


Posted by: on: Jun 30, 2011 @ 12:37