Which is Worse: Coal Ash or Your Household Trash?

            Environmental groups are strident in demanding a “hazardous waste” designation and federal regulation for coal ash disposal.  But how does it compare to municipal solid waste – a material safely handled by local communities everywhere and regulated by the states?

            Municipal solid waste (MSW) is what’s collected from homes and businesses in your town or city – more than 250 million tons of it every year disposed in more than 1,600 landfills around the United States.  Here’s a quick checklist comparing it with coal ash:

            Biologically active?  MSW yes. Coal ash no.

            Emits explosive gases? MSW yes. Coal ash no.

            Emits greenhouse gases? MSW yes. Coal ash no.

            Often contains sewage sludge? MSW yes. Coal ash no.

            Attracts rodents and birds? MSW yes. Coal ash no.

            The risk most often cited by environmental groups is that of metals leaching out of coal ash and into water supplies.  But once again, those risks are significantly lower than the risks associated with MSW.

In 2009, the Electric Power Research Institute conducted research to compare potential risks from leachates from coal ash landfills and impoundments with risks from leachates from municipal solid waste landfills, which are not considered hazardous waste. The results show that using standard screening level risk assessment protocols, the risk from fly ash leachate is several orders of magnitude lower than municipal solid waste leachates for non-cancer, cancer, and ecologic risks. (See chart below.)

The high municipal solid waste risk is largely driven by dioxins and furans, which have high risk levels even at very low concentrations. If dioxins and furans are excluded from the analysis, fly ash leachate risk is still about a factor of 10 lower than municipal solid waste leachate.

Posted by: on: Mar 04, 2010 @ 08:28