More coal ash on the way?

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A massive, late-December coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee helped publicize the many dangers of the often toxic solid waste generated by burning coal for electricity.

Now an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council is warning that millions more tons of coal ash could pile up from all the proposed plants nationwide. Many proposed plants are at least temporarily on hold, says the Energy Department, as a result of local opposition or anxiety over costs. But the NRDC report says the 82 coal-fired facilities nationwide that are somewhere in the planning process would yield an additional 18 million tons of coal ash a year, and that ash would contain 18,000 tons of toxic metals — arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury — that could wreak havoc on the environment and human health.

The NRDC report also ranks the states, according to which might see the most coal ash. The top coal-ash producer already, Texas, would retain that distinction if the eight proposed plants there become reality; they would add four million tons of coal ash yearly to the 8.4 million tons generated in the state today.

If the plans go through, other big coal-ash producers would include South Dakota (952,630 million new tons yearly, 2 proposed plants); Florida (911,118 new tons a year, 3 plants); Nevada (888,272 new tons a year, 3 plants), and Montana (848,278 new tons yearly, 3 plants). All are states that failed to make PaperTrail's top 10 list of big coal-ash producing states to date. Indeed, Nevada and South Dakota are currently at the bottom, with Nevada's existing power plants yielding just 233,600 tons of coal ash annually, and South Dakota yielding 50,400 tons.

On March 9, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to regulate coal ash by year’s end — a shift in its position after nine years of delay. But it remains to be seen whether or not the agency will regulate coal ash as “hazardous” under federal waste laws, thus triggering strict controls for its disposal.

In a statement issued to Papertrail, the EPA doesn’t discount that possibility. It is now moving, as it writes, “expeditiously towards an appropriate solution, including whether regulation of coal combustion residuals under hazardous waste provisions are warranted.”

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