Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Lump of Coal Ash For You

I was reading PZ Myers blog post on coal ash. Coal ash is the toxic sludge that is leftover after coal is burned. In Tennessee a retaining wall collapsed and 500 million gallons of coal ash were dumped into the state's water table. Since coal ash contains concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic substances you would think this would be recognized by the media as a huge environmental disaster. However the coverage has been very light to say the least.

This got me thinking about how we deal with coal ash in Alberta. Over 95% of our electricity is coal fire generated. Mostly this comes from the two large generators at Lake Wabamum. The first plant built in the 1950's pretty much ruined the ecology of the lake. A CN derailment a few summers ago didn't help by dumping millions of gallons of bunker oil in the lake.

So where does the ash from these plants go? Most of the coal in Alberta is strip mined, so it is likely the ash goes back in an excavation where the coal came from. I did find one document on Alberta Environment's website which did not exactly fill me with confidence.

Some excerpts:

Coal ash contains certain elements (B, Se, As) in concentrations that may create toxic conditions when entering the food chain via plant uptake or by leaching into the ground and surface waters. Therefore, it is critical to define and characterize coal ash to ensure proper use and disposal procedures.


Update: B,Se and As in the above quotation refer to Boron, Selenium and Arsenic.

The Alberta User Guide for Waste Managers states that “fly ash waste, bottom ash waste, slag waste or flue gas emission control waste generated from the combustion of domestic waste, coal, wood, or other fossil fuels” are not considered hazardous wastes..

Emphasis mine. And...

Current management options for coal ash include: disposal in mined out areas, surface impoundments, off-site landfills, co-disposal with sour wastes, soil conditioner for pH adjustment, and re-use.

The document goes on with the usual assurances that there shouldn't be any problems. I wrote some time ago about how a moth-balled gas plant in Turner Valley was leaking toxic hydrocarbons in the Sheep River water basin and no one was acknowledging the problem or trying to fix it. Then there's the ongoing allegation of cancer rates in the Athabasca River communities. The response was to deny and fire a health official.

Do you see a pattern here? A province that actually has poor environmental practices goes to great lengths to deny the problem and harass whistle blowers.

Unfortunately there's not much the rest of us can do about it because the Government has the unwavering support of Alberta's media outlets. Vote Tory, be happy. Please recommend this post

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