More than 150 public interest groups have called for tighter regulation of coal ash after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a proposed risk assessment revealing an elevated risk of cancer from coal ash radiation. The assessment revealed that there are additional radiation-related risks from coal ash use and included an arsenic draft toxicological assessment that found its cancer potency was 35 times higher.
Coal ash is a residual material left after combusting coal for energy-generation purposes with a long history of being used as an additive in cement, grout and concrete as well as a filling material in road beds. The American Coal Ash Association (ACCA) reports that two million tons of coal was used as filling material in 2021 alone. In addition, environmental law group Earthjustice notes that 180 million tons of this toxic material has been used as cheap filling material since 1980.
Unsurprisingly, coal contains several toxic metal contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, selenium, lithium, radium and cadmium. The proliferation of coal ash within waterways and hundreds of sites across the United States has allowed these toxic contaminants to contribute to health issues such as reproductive failure, neurological harm, thyroid and heart disease, and cancer.
A press release from Earthjustice said that since most states don’t regulate coal ash, there are barely any safeguards for the material despite its prolific use in the construction sector. The environmental law group noted that most states prohibit placing coal ash near homes, playgrounds or drinking water wells.
With the ACCA stating that coal ash use in construction increased by a whopping 40% from 2020 to 2021 and in light of the EPA’s recent draft-risk assessment, a large contingency of groups including Earthjustice sent the agency a letter calling for immediate action. The groups demanded “swift action to prevent further serious harm from coal ash used as structural fill in residential areas.” The letter argued that the EPA’s current regulation of the coal residue is “grossly inadequate” and said the agency’s lack of oversight and enforceable standards for larger volumes of coal ash is disastrous.
According to the public-interest groups, the EPA should swiftly quantify the radiation-related health risks presented by inhaling and ingesting coal ash, as well as investigate the areas where coal ash has been used as fill in residential areas, necessitating cleanup. Furthermore, the letter called for the agency to immediately start a rulemaking process to prohibit using coal ash as a structural fill material and asked the agency to publish an advisory to the public banning the use of coal ash as fill material in residential places until final rules are determined.
Companies that generate electricity using the coal obtained from suppliers such as Warrior Met Coal Inc. (NYSE: HCC) may soon have to find alternative ways to dispose of the ash from their operations as pressure mounts to address the health hazards arising from using that waste as a fill material.
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