Photo credit: Living on Earth, http://loe.org/content/2014-02-14/1-dan-river.jpg
As a resident of North Carolina, which has 14 coal-fired power plants and an additional 50 coal ash impoundments, and just last year was home to the third-largest coal ash spill in US history, coal ash is a major concern to me and my whole community.
Earlier this year, Duke Energy (which is the largest utility company in the US) pled guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. As a result of this plea deal, Duke Energy has to do environmental audits of all of its coal-fired power plants, AND, according to this article, Duke Energy is required to log and investigate citizen concerns about coal ash dumps and resultant air and water quality issues. While we will have to wait and see what sorts of investigations will be conducted, on on what timelines, this is an opportunity for community monitoring to be visible.
Coal ash can have serious negative impacts on air and water quality, and of course, human health. Coal ash is a waste product of coal combustion, where most of the carbon has been burned off, and the residual ash is highly concentrated with metals such as arsenic and selenium (which have a whole host of human health impacts, including diseases like arsenicosis). It also has a high silica content, and airborne silica can lead to silicosis (read more about these issues here). Coal ash can be an airborne problem as it is blown from waste piles, and a waterborne problem as it seeps into groundwater from unlined holding ponds, or breaches impoundments directly into surface waters. Groundwater contamination is not visible, so is hard to detect without laboratory testing for metals (except for maybe by the Whee Stat? What are the detection limits with this instrument, @JSummers?). Surface water contamination through seepage also would be difficult to detect by anything other than laboratory metals analysis, BUT, breaches are obvious because of the mobilization of ash into the waterways, and could be documented by photographs. Airborne coal ash may be monitored as general particulate matter, by instruments such as this one in development, led by @mathew.
Who else is interested in coal ash? Let's start a conversation on what we can do to monitor it (or its consequences) in the environment and advocate for better handling of this nasty stuff.