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Coal's Toxic Sludge

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But Conrad Volz, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the health impacts of coal ash, says the industry's view defies common sense and sound science: "Of course coal ash is a hazardous material. Anyone who says it is not is just playing legal games."

Even Roewer acknowledges that the leaching test doesn't do a very good job of mimicking the real world, where unlined ash ponds often result in sky-high levels of contamination. EPA scientists are developing another standard, called the Leaching Assessment Framework, which demonstrates that coal ash can be far more dangerous than the industry acknowledges. The real threat with coal ash occurs when the waste comes into contact with water, which mobilizes contaminants and carries them into streams, lakes and drinking water. "What is most important is not the amount of metal in the ash but its mobility," says Susan Thorneloe, a senior EPA scientist. According to recent tests conducted by Thorneloe, leaching levels of arsenic in some coal ash can run 1,800 times higher than the federal standard for drinking water. Even in scrubber sludge, which is supposedly safe to spread on crops and use in wallboard, Thorneloe found contaminant levels of selenium more than 3,000 times higher than the federal standard for surface water.

But the EPA doesn't even need to rely on such tests to designate coal ash as hazardous — under federal law, it can look at the havoc that coal waste has already wreaked on public health and the environment. "There are over 100 cases where we have strong evidence of coal ash's impact on drinking water and surface water," says Lisa Evans, a former EPA enforcement attorney who now serves as senior administrative counsel for the environmental group Earthjustice. "By this standard, the EPA has more than enough evidence to list coal ash as a hazardous waste."

Evans points out environmentalists aren't trying to shut down Big Coal — they're simply pushing the EPA to implement common-sense solutions that have been used for years in other industries, such as equipping waste ponds with a protective lining and then monitoring them for leakage. "We're not talking about men in hazmat suits every time a truck moves a load of ash," she says. "That's not what is required here." But that hasn't stopped the industry from engaging in the same scare tactics it has been employing for decades. USWAG claims that disposing of coal ash as hazardous waste will cost $20 billion a year — a figure unsupported by any independent study. And companies that specialize in recycling coal ash into household items insist that tougher regulations will destroy what has become a lucrative business. "If coal ash is regulated as a hazardous material, it will kill the beneficial-use industry," says Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association. "If I'm trying to sell shingles with boiler slag in them, who is going to buy them? Nobody." Hilariously, the industry even argues that recycling coal waste in concrete and other building materials helps curb global warming by cutting down on carbon pollution.

The irony is, efforts to clear the air may actually increase the danger posed by coal waste. As coal plants clean up their smokestack emissions by installing scrubbers and other pollution-control devices, they are creating more and more sludge that contains all the nasty stuff that would have otherwise been spewed into the atmosphere. "Clean-coal technology is nothing but a code word for 'let's generate more waste than ever before,'" says Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project.

For the Obama administration, which has been so outspoken about using science to guide sound environmental policy, confronting coal ash should be a no-brainer. After all, the cost of safely disposing of coal waste is tiny compared to the long-term risk to public health: Left unregulated, the sludge will continue to leak toxic chemicals into America's drinking water for decades to come. But environmentalists aren't so sure that the EPA, which is already under fire for failing to stop Big Coal from blowing up mountaintops in Appalachia, is ready to do what it takes to protect the public from coal ash. "I don't want to say that this is a litmus test for the EPA," says Evans, the Earthjustice attorney. "But in some ways it is. Regulating solid waste is something the EPA is very good at. The question is, do they have the political will to do the right thing?"

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