Coal power plants–which are somewhat notorious for their carbon emissions and pollution of air and waterways–also produce millions of tons of waste annually. This waste is contaminated with toxic metals and is dumped into landfills, storage ponds, or old ponds, where it sits waiting for disaster to strike. This is exactly what happened last year when a waste pond operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority spilled over a billion gallons of toxic sludge across the surrounding community.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, existing coal plants produced 126 million tons of contaminated waste in 2005. Power companies want to open an additional 70 coal-fired plants–including several in Michigan–which would generate 15 million tons of coal waste.
While the Obama administration has said that it intends to regulate coal waste, it’s still a major problem as no regulations currently exist despite very real environmental and health concerns. According to the EPA, certain types of coal ash disposal sites pose a cancer risk nearly 1,000 times the acceptable level.
The Natural Resources Defense Council recently conducted a study looking at coal waste and found that Michigan is one of the “Filthy 15” states (it ranks 12th) in which proposed plants would produce large amounts of toxic metals. The proposed plants would generate 686,879 tons of contaminated coal waste annually, including 634 tons of toxic metals.
When it comes to existing plants and coal waste, Michigan doesn’t rank much better. In 2005, it reported 2,129,700 tons of contaminated coal waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that there were 2,524 tons of toxic metals contaminating its coal waste.
West Michigan’s Ottawa County is home to one of the plants with the highest amount of toxic metals.
For those wishing to take action on the issue, the Natural Resources Defense Council has an e-mail action to demand that the EPA strictly regulate coal waste disposal. It would also be worth getting involved in current organizing in Michigan against the proposed coal plants.