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Statistically Speaking – Coal Waste: What’s It Good For?

by Bill Chameides | January 30th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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In December 2008, a massive spill of fly ash at the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee sent more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal waste sludge into the region. Waste like this is a problem in the United States, where coal is abundant.

As we’ve seen from recent catastrophic spills at coal plants in Harriman, Tennessee, and Widows Creek, Alabama, it’s past time to take a closer look at how we dispose of coal waste.

In 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency came very close to classifying coal residues as hazardous waste, but instead made a commitment to issue a national standard for coal waste. That commitment is past due. I’m sure the residents of Roane County, Tennessee agree. (See related post.)

The top four uses for recycled coal waste are:
– concrete/grout products,
– structural fills/embankments,
– gypsum panel products, and
– mining applications.

First Some Coal Facts

Coal is:

  • the world’s most abundant fossil fuel,
  • the source of about half our electricity,
  • the dirtiest fossil fuel, and
  • loaded with toxins, including:
    • arsenic,
    • beryllium
    • lead,
    • mercury,
    • selenium,
    • thallium, and
    • dioxins. (Full list here [pdf].)

Coal Waste by the Numbers

Minimal amount of coal combustion waste generated per year since 2001 (in short tons): 120 million

Amount of coal waste generated in 2007 (in short tons): 131 million

Percentage of coal waste recycled in 2007: 43

Percentage of coal waste dumped into lined and unlined containment ponds or landfills in 2007: 57

Number of train cars the unrecycled coal waste would fill: 620,000
Number of times these cars if hitched together could cover the distance between New York City and L.A.: 2



Managing Coal Combustion Residues in

Advancing the Management and Use of Coal Combustion Products –

Notice of Data Availability on the Disposal of Coal Combustion Wastes in Landfills and Surface Impoundments –

Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion

U.S. Department of Energy –

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