Vice News’ powerful documentary Toxic Waste in the US: Coal Ash provides a closer look at the human and environmental challenges of safely disposing coal ash (aka “fly ash”).
A compound of aluminum oxide, iron oxide and silicon oxide, coal ash is the powdery residue that’s left after burning coal – just like ash is leftover in a fireplace after wood is burned. It also contains arsenic, mercury and other metals known to be highly carcinogenic. The United States gets 37 percent of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, so this issue isn’t going away anytime soon.
Hundreds of millions of tons of the stuff is dumped into unlined reservoirs every year and often seeps into rivers, lakes, and aquifers–the sources of nearby residents’ drinking water.
In 2008, activists became enraged when the banks of the ash reservoir for Tennessee’s Kingston coal plant broke, leaking 300 million gallons of the toxic slurry across 400 acres of land. Despite the 450,000 public comments supporting coal ash regulation after the Kingston spill, the EPA still considers the substance a non-hazardous waste product, which means power plants can dispose of it without oversight.