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The Dirty Secret of Coal Ash: It’s in Our Roads

2:55 PM EDT on October 5, 2009

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Last night's 60 Minutes featured an eye-opening report (viewable above) on the 130 million tons of coal ash waste generated every year by the nation's thirst for energy. The show outlined the lack of oversight over disposal of the toxic ash, which is routinely used in the most commonplace of areas: concrete.

In its fact sheet on fly ash -- as the by-products of coal burning is sometimes called -- the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) touts the "economic and ecological benefits" of using the substance in the asphalt that paves U.S. roadways.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has joined the effort by partnering with industry interests on the Coal Combustion Projects Partnership, which has the stated goal of "decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from avoided cement manufacturing" by using coal ash as an additive -- notwithstanding the emissions that created the coal ash in the first place.

Using coal ash in local streets, making concrete stronger and cheaper to produce has become an accepted practice because the mixing process is thought to trap the toxic ingredients. But in the wake of last year's massive coal ash spill in Tennessee, environmental groups are raising questions about possible public health risks and the EPA is signaling it will begin regulating the ash.

A final decision on new rules for coal ash is expected by December, EPA chief Lisa Jackson told 60 Minutes yesterday. Still, it's worth noting that concrete companies are already pushing back against the idea, warning that the bills for local transportation projects would swell even if the EPA continues to consider roads a "beneficial" use for coal ash.

During Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's appearance in the House infrastructure committee late last week, Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC) queried him on the prospect of coal ash regulation. Coble said:

I also understand that EPA may consider a hybrid approach to regulating the material so that the beneficial use of fly ash is deemed non-hazardous but the material that remains would be classified hazardous. We've been advised that if the EPA decides to implement either of these approaches, concrete producers would have to use an average of more than 15 to 20 percent more cement per yard of concrete to replace the fly ash.

Could concrete producers successfully lobby to water down the impact of the EPA's move? In a city where every industry has sway in the race for campaign cash, it's certainly possible.

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