Coal Ash and the water you drink by Julie Peller Ph.D.

Coal ash constitutes one of the country’s major industrial waste products, according to the US EPA. Coal is a brownish-black or black sedimentary rock that took millions of years to form. Coal’s carbon and carbon-containing compounds burn well, which has made it a significant source of energy for society. The part of the coal that does not burn is left behind as coal ash. It includes oxides of calcium, silica, iron, and aluminum and many heavy metals such as barium, chromium, lead, arsenic, and mercury. In 2014 alone, 130 million tons of coal ash were generated in the United States, 48% was recycled. An estimated 1.5 billion tons are stockpiled, but not necessarily without harm. In 2020, Duke Energy was required to initiate a historic cleanup of coal ash pollution in North Carolina. According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, the energy company will be required “to excavate more than 76 million tons of coal ash from open, unlined impoundments at six facilities.” The state of Indiana leads the nation in the number (86) of coal ash impoundments and lags behind in the safe closing of coal ash deposits.

Coal ash stockpiles frequently contaminate groundwater. According to EPA standards, data collected by coal-power companies at 265 facilities in the US (those required to monitor nearby groundwater) showed that 241 (91%) had unsafe levels of one or more coal ash toxins. Of the 86 coal ash impoundments in Indiana, only 13 have liners to prevent the toxic ash from seeping into groundwater. Contaminated groundwater may eventually leach into lakes and rivers. According to a recent report on water in Indiana, compiled by the US Geological Survey, “Federal and state regulations do not currently apply to the millions of tons of coal ash that have been used as fill material in Indiana nor to the coal ash residing in historical impoundments from the many decades of burning coal in the state, though they are likely also impacting groundwater.” Another study showed that “nearly all of Indiana’s pits had been releasing heavy metals and toxic chemicals.” 

According to a new federal law, coal ash ponds contaminating groundwater must close. As a result, almost all the Indiana coal ash impoundments are subject to closure, which involves either encapsulating the waste or transferring it to a dry, lined landfill on higher ground. Concerned citizens around the state have been pleading with state legislators to address the coal ash contamination, to require utilities to dig up the ash and store it safely inlined facilities. The Indiana General Assembly did not address the problem in this year’s legislative session. In comparison, according to a report by the Indianapolis Star, “Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and

Georgia have all put in place various measures and regulations requiring most, if not all, of its ash to be dug up.” In the Laudato Si, Pope Francis expresses, “Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures, and controls..or it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.” 

Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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