Coal Ash Debate Fires up Lawmakers In Washington

Every year, power plants in the U.S. produce about 140 million tons of coal ash. The substance, otherwise known as "fly ash," is an inorganic byproduct of burning coal, and is usually disposed of in landfills and settlement ponds.

West Virginia is home to more than 20 coal ash storage sites; all of them pose a risk of exposure to hazardous substances. Yet, the debate over what to do with fly ash is not as open and closed as it may appear at first glance, and lawmakers in Washington are struggling to find common ground on the issue.

Benefits And Risks Of Coal Ash Weighed

Researchers have identified several health concerns associated with coal ash disposal facilities; for instance, those who rely on drinking water supplies near certain types of coal ash sites have been found to face a one-in-50 chance of getting cancer from arsenic exposure. Yet, coal ash is not always a substantial danger. It presents the greatest risk when it is stored in an area with a lot of groundwater moving through it, which leaches out harmful chemicals; kept in a relatively confined area, fly ash has modest or nonexistent health impacts.

"The hazard associated with coal ash is largely a function of where you put it and what kind of environment you put it in," Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

There are also the benefits of coal ash to consider: currently, 40 percent of coal ash byproducts are recycled and used in construction of roads and buildings. When coal ash is used in this manner (for instance, as a component in concrete), it presents no risk of leaching and therefore creates no health concerns. It also reduces landfill waste and lowers the cost of making concrete by ten to 15 percent.

As the law stands, coal ash is listed as a nonhazardous waste, which means states are left to their own devices to see that it is managed safely. Some lawmakers intend to keep it that way: Republicans in the U.S. House have shepherded through a transportation bill that if ultimately approved would prevent the EPA from declaring coal ash a hazardous material that falls under the federal agency's purview. While some applaud this move as a way to keep coal mining costs low and assure the future of coal ash recycling for constructive use, others fear that a lack of EPA oversight will only lead to greater health risks for coal industry workers and the general public.

Health Harmed In Or Near A West Virginia Coal Ash Site? Legal Help, Not Regulations, Best Bet

There are merits to both sides of the coal ash regulation debate. But, what may be lost in the scale of national politics is the real-world impact mishandled coal ash and other pollutants can have. If you or a family member has been harmed by a hazardous substance, you may have a right to compensation – contact a personal injury attorney to learn more.