Fighting Toxic Journalism Emerges as Major Challenge for Recyclers

            Citizens for Recycling First routinely contacts journalists who misuse the word “toxic” in their reporting on coal ash.  This effort has emerged as a significant second front in the battle to defend coal ash recycling.

In addition to working against proposed EPA coal ash disposal rules that would stigmatize ash with an unnecessary “hazardous waste” label, recycling supporters must vigilantly challenge news media reports that improperly label all coal ash as “toxic.” Without this second effort, recycling supporters could win a regulatory battle but lose the stigma war.

Here is an example of just one recent exchange with a reporter for a major newspaper:

Initial Message to Reporter:

Dear (Reporter Name),

I very much appreciate your insightful reporting on EPA, but please stop referring to "toxic coal ash." Coal ash is not "toxic." Even EPA will admit that. The repetition of this label is already starting to destroy one of the most beneficial recycling efforts in America.  Please stop using this stigmatizing label and refer to coal ash as what it is: "coal ash."

Thank you,

John Ward

Citizens for Recycling First

Response from Reporter:

What’s your definition of "toxic"? How exactly does coal ash not meet the definition?

Thank you,

Follow-up Message to Reporter:

A material is "toxic" when a toxin (or poison) escapes from the material and affects a person or organism.

Toxins present in coal ash are metals that are also present in most everyday materials.  The levels of metals in coal ash are similar to the levels of the same metals in materials coal ash replaces when it is recycled (i.e. portland cement and aggregates.)  Many of the metals of concern are ubiquitous in other products (i.e. mercury in light bulbs and dental fillings; arsenic in treated lumber; selenium in your multivitamin tablet, etc.)

The standard test used by EPA to establish whether any material is "toxic" and qualifies as a "hazardous waste" is the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP). Coal ash does NOT qualify as a "toxic" hazardous waste based on this procedure.

EPA's current coal ash disposal rulemaking does NOT claim that coal ash qualifies as hazardous waste based on its toxicity. EPA's proposed justification for a hazardous waste regulatory approach is based on "damage cases" related to failed disposal impoundments -- not on the toxicity of the material itself.  Furthermore, the actual landfill engineering standards being proposed by EPA are essentially the same under BOTH the hazardous and non-hazardous proposed approaches. (Single liner systems with groundwater monitoring and phase-out of wet impoundments. A truly "toxic" material would be subjected to double liner and leachate collection systems that EPA is NOT proposing even under its "hazardous" proposal.)

EPA claims that it continues to support recycling of coal ash in most applications.  But if you call it "toxic" when it is disposed, no one will want to use it in their homes, schools and businesses. The damage to the recycling industry is already being done just by the presence of this debate and the careless repetition of "toxic coal ash" in news story after news story.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and reply to my emailed request.  I'd be happy to provide you any more information that you would like.

--John Ward

Posted by: on: Oct 07, 2010 @ 12:47