The Unsolved Problems of Long-Term Coal Waste Disposal

One doesnâ''t want to make overly direct and invidious comparisons between coal-generated and nuclear-generated electricity, for fear of being called a vulgar environmentalist. But itâ''s hard not to wonder, sometimes, why such a fuss is being made about hypothetical dangers that nuclear wastes could pose 100,000 years from now, when coal wastes are wreaking havoc right now, right before our eyes.

A report released today by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice draws attention to dangers connected with some 200 landfills and wetponds where ash and scrubber sludge from coal-fired power plants are dumped. Believe it or not, according to the report, each year nearly 100 million tons of ash and sludge are dumped in the United States, sometimes in poorly secured dammed ponds like the one that burst in Kingston, Tennessee, last December.

The report, based largely on data and analysis done by the EPA in 2002 but released only this March, finds that there are high-risk dump sites in at lest three dozen states; 21 states have 5 or more such sites. In all, there are 100 landfills and 110 surface impoundments lacking the synthetic liners needed to prevent leakage of heavy metals and toxic compounds into groundwater.

Lethal substances contained in the ash and sludge include arsenic, selenium, lead, boron, cadmium, and cobalt. Adverse effects on human health and local ecological systems can linger for well over a century, typically peaking 78 to 105 years from the time the pool or impoundment is filled.

EIP was founded in 2002 by Eric Schaeffer after he resigned as director of EPAâ''s enforcement office. Earthjustice seeks to preserve and improve the environment by taking action in court to induce enforcement of laws.


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