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Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity’s Coal Ash Waste

Posted By Rogelio G. Reyes, Friday, 19 December 2014

Environmentalists and industry experts expect the first federal standards for waste generated from coal burned for electricity to treat the ash more like household garbage than a hazardous material.

People don't usually see the ash left over from the electricity that's burned when they turn on their lights or run their air conditioners.

But at coal power plants, fly ash builds up every day, laced with heavy metals and toxins—one of the most difficult waste-management issues in the developed world.

In the United States, where a catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill sullied land, rivers, and homes over 300 acres (121 hectares) of Tennessee, government and industry are locked in a dispute over future handling of the nettlesome by-product of fossil-fueled electricity.

The good news: Waste from coal power plants doesn't have to be a waste.

It can be recycled into a wide variety of materials, from concrete to fertilizer. Fly ash, the fine, powdery silica material that is part of the coal ash waste stream, in fact, has an array of physical and chemical properties that have led to inventive ideas for new applications. Entrepreneurs are looking at ideas for using it to build lighter armored vehicles or to clean up oil spills.

But policymakers around the world face a difficult challenge: How to encourage safe reuse of coal ash, while discouraging unsafe uses and protecting people and ecosystems from the risks that have escalated as coal ash waste piles and landfills have grown.

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Credit: Rachel Kaufman For National Geographic News


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