Coal fly ash represents a major environmental problem. In the United States alone 130 million tons of fly ash were produced from coal fired power plants. Around half of this fly ash is stored in landfills.
Heavy metals can leach from stored fly ash into groundwater and endanger the health of the surrounding population. Chemicals found in nearby ground water include mercury, cadmiun and boron. This has lead to multi-million dollar settlements with the power companies responsible, such as a $25 million dollar settlement of Pudget Sound Energy with residents of Colstrip, MT. In this case boron levels in drinking water reached 13 times the legal limit.
Additionally storage ponds can breach, causing a dangerous release of massive quantities of fly ash, as occurred in Kingston, TN in 2008. Millions of tons of ponded fly ash were released, burying houses and flowing into streams and rivers. In 2009 the EPA released a list of 44 “high hazard potential” coal waste sites, which included 12 sites in North Carolina, 9 in Arizona, 6 in Kentucky, 6 in Ohio, and 4 in West Virginia.
The problems associated with fly ash storage and recycling have recently come to national attention, including an August, 2010 segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes”.