As a HEAL supporter, you may know about the toxins associated with burning coal. Coal-fired electricity is our single biggest polluter, whether we’re talking about the carbon that’s warming our planet or the many particulates and chemicals that obscure our scenic vistas and endanger our health.
What you may not know about is another menace produced by burning coal for power: the nasty dust left over. Known as “coal ash,” it’s a mixture of the ash that falls to the bottom of the furnace (bottom ash) and that captured by pollution controls (fly ash). And it’s big issue here in Utah, as we’ll describe below.
Coal ash is pretty darn toxic – and there is, to use a technical term, A LOT of it produced in the U.S. each year. (A LOT, in this case, equals 71.1 million tons.)
That ash is either dumped dry into landfills, where it poses an airborne menace as it drifts, or is stored wet in massive slurry ponds, where it can collapse dams or leak through pipelines and destroy entire communities, as happened in Tennessee in 2008 or North Carolina in 2014. The toxic metals found in coal ash have been linked to cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma, and other illnesses.
In 2015 the Obama Administration unveiled the first ever regulations governing coal ash disposal. The regulations mandate more stringent monitoring, containment, and treatment requirements for power plants.
Coal Ash In Utah
Is coal ash an issue in Utah? Yup, and HEAL, for the past couple years, has been working on multiple fronts to try and minimize its impact on the states environment and landscapes.
- In March of 2016, HEAL and our allies filed a lawsuit in District Court alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. (See our press release announcing the suit.) The action, filed jointly by the HEAL Utah, Sierra Club and Public Justice, highlights widespread contamination of area land and waters via a troubling practice occurring on what PacifiCorp calls a “research farm.” Several years ago, after the company discovered toxins in area ground water due to coal ash contamination, PacificCorp literally spread the problem around via spraying waste-tainted water and leachate onto a field of alfalfa that is dubbed a “research farm.”
- The suit argues that the company must end that practice – and also clean up additional violations of the Clean Water Act because the company, as part of its coal ash “cleanup” scheme, illegally eliminated several small local streams without receiving permission from the appropriate federal agency. Not surprisingly, PacifiCorp responded by filing a motion to dismiss our action on jurisdictional grounds (they’re arguing that since they have all relevant state permits that we can’t allege federal rule violations). A federal judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments on that motion here in Salt Lake City in September of 2016.
- If the suit moves forward, PacifiCorp faces potentially millions of dollars in liabilities due to its haphazard handling of toxic wastes. An example consequence would be that PacifiCorp must construct a wastewater treatment plant.