When coal is burned, roughly ten percent remains behind in mineral form that is contaminated with toxic heavy metals. In coming years, as more coal-fired plants install scrubbers, this proportion will rise. The already large stream of toxic coal combustion residues (CCRs) will grow significantly.
At present, we have only a patchwork of state regulations. Maryland recently (2008) implemented CCR regulations for the first time.
Under pressure from a White House responsive to utilities, EPA has offered a weaker option that would treat toxic coal combustion waste like household garbage under state regulation. The more protective alternative would designate the stuff as a “special waste” and put it under federal regulation.
Economist John Howley, editor of MarylandEnergyReport.org, presented oral and written comments to the USEPA at an Arlington public hearing. The comments examined Maryland’s recent experience with regulation toxic coal combustion waste.
Under the Healthy Air Act, scrubbers have been installed on all of Maryland’s coal-fired power plants and production of coal combustion waste has been predicted by the Maryland Department of the Environment to more than double. At present, most of Maryland’s CCRs are shipped out of state. Absent strong federal regulation, we could witness an explosive growth in unregulated inter-state shipments of CCRs in coming years.
For an update on the kind of damage toxic coal waste can leave in its wake, see this recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and Sierra Club: IN HARM’S WAY: Lack Of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans And Their Environment – Thirty-nine New Damage Cases of Contamination from Improperly Disposed Coal Combustion Waste.