EPA failed to assess coal risks, IG finds

The agency recommended using coal waste for nearly a decade, despite concentrations of arsenic, lead and mercury, report finds.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommended using coal waste in roads, buildings and other construction for about a decade without adequately assessing the damage it could cause, according to a new report from EPA's inspector general.

From 2001 to 2010, EPA promoted coal combustion residues -- the byproducts of coal-fired power plants, such as fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag -- as potentially useful materials for wallboard, road bases, golf course fill, concrete and other applications, in an effort to reduce waste. The residues contain low concentrations of arsenic, lead and mercury, which are known to leach into ground water sources if unprotected, the report said.

EPA's recommendations came out of a government-industry coalition, the Coal Combustion Products Partnership, which included the American Coal Ash Association and Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, as well as other federal agencies.

The use of coal combustion residues as a structural filler nearly tripled between 2001 and 2008, from 4 million tons to 12 million tons a year, according to the report.

Yet, barring a single draft assessment examining the use of fluidized bed combustion waste --a specific coal combustion byproduct --in agricultural settings, EPA never undertook a risk assessment ofrecommended substancesin any of the uses it promoted.

When the agency started the partnership, the then-director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery said understanding the risks of the promoted products rested with the states. But only 34 states have programs for industrial waste reuse, and those programs could rely on EPA for technical and safety guidance.

Following the accidental release of more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge at a Tennessee power plant containment dike in 2008, EPA re-examined its policies on coal ash disposal. The agency proposed new rules to regulate coal ash products in May 2010.

Last October, the agency removed the Coal Combustion Products Partnership website from its domain, after an early version of the IG report informed EPA it might have been improperly endorsing commercial products and promoting views in opposition to its policy.

The report encouraged EPA to define the risks associated with future use of coal combustion byproducts, but also said the agency might have to take action to redress the past use of coal ash in structural fill situations. EPA said it would submit a "detailed corrective action plan" within 90 days.

Jason Hayes, communication director for the American Coal Council, said the IG report "is just another example of an ongoing campaign by the EPA against coal." He warned the agency plans to hold "coal ash up to a level no other recyclable material is held to."

NEXT STORY: Pay Freezes: More Harm Than Good?