Coal / Coal Ash

Seeking a safer future for electricity’s coal ash waste

A truck dumps a load of ash from a coal-fired power plant in Shizuishan, in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of China. How to encourage recycling and beneficial uses of coal waste, while managing hazards, is a challenge for policymakers around the world.

NEW YORK, NY — “People don’t usually see the ash left over from the electricity that’s burned when they turn on their lights or run their air conditioners.

But at coal power plants, fly ash builds up every day, laced with heavy metals and toxins—one of the most difficult waste-management issues in the developed world.

In the United States, where a catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill sullied land, rivers, and homes over 300 acres (121 hectares) of Tennessee, government and industry are locked in a dispute over future handling of the nettlesome by-product of fossil-fueled electricity…

Fly ash and the other residuals of burned coal add up to one of the largest waste streams in the United States: More than 136 million tons per year. In Europe, coal waste totals 100 million tons per year by some estimates. Similar figures aren’t available for China, but since it is now burning more coal than the United States, the waste generation is significant. Scientists at the China Building Materials Academy and the Institute of Technical Information for Building Materials Industry calculate that their country has accumulated 2.5 billion tons of coal ash.

For years, critics and communities have warned that the typical practices for disposal of coal ash—in landfills—posed a hazard to groundwater and to people who live nearby. The problem spilled into public view on December 22, 2008, when an earthen dam holding coal ash collapsed at Tennessee Valley Authority‘s Kingston Fossil Fuel plant, west of Knoxville.”

— Rachel Kaufman, National Geographic

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