U.S. wants farmers to use coal waste on fields
The federal government is encouraging farmers to spread a chalky waste from coal-fired power plants on their fields to loosen and fertilize soil even as it considers regulating coal wastes for the first time.
The material is produced by power plant "scrubbers" that remove acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide from plant emissions. A synthetic form of the mineral gypsum, it also contains mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
The Environmental Protection Agency says those toxic metals occur in only tiny amounts that pose no threat to crops, surface water or people. But some environmentalists say too little is known about how the material affects crops, and ultimately human health, for the government to suggest that farmers use it.
"This is a leap into the unknown," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "This stuff has materials in it that we're trying to prevent entering the environment from coal-fired power plants, and then to turn around and smear it across ag lands raises some real questions."
With wastes piling up around the coal-fired plants that produce half the nation's power, the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture began promoting what they call the wastes' "beneficial uses" during the Bush administration.
Part of that push is to expand the use of synthetic gypsum -- a whitish, calcium-rich material known as flue gas desulfurization gypsum, or FGD gypsum. The Obama administration has continued promoting FGD gypsum's use in farming.
The administration is also drafting a regulatory rule for coal waste, in response to a spill from a coal ash pond near Knoxville, Tenn., one year ago Tuesday. Ash and water flooded 300 acres, damaging homes and killing fish. The cleanup is expected to cost about $1 billion.
The EPA is expected to announce its proposals for regulation early next year, setting the first federal standards for storage and disposal of coal wastes.
EPA officials declined to talk about the agency's promotion of FGD gypsum before then and would not say whether the draft rule would cover it.
Field studies have shown that mercury, the main heavy metal of concern because it can harm nervous-system development, does not accumulate in crops or run off fields in surface water at "significant" levels, the EPA said.
"EPA believes that the use of FGD gypsum in agriculture is safe in appropriate soil and hydrogeologic conditions," the statement said.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which advocates for more effective enforcement of environmental laws, said he is not overly worried about FGD gypsum's use on fields because research shows it contains only tiny amounts of heavy metals. But he said federal limits on the amounts of heavy metals in FGD gypsum sold to farmers would help allay concerns.
"That would give them assurance that they've got clean FGD gypsum," he said.
Since the EPA-USDA partnership began in 2001, farmers' use of the material has more than tripled, from about 78,000 tons spread on fields in 2002 to nearly 279,000 tons last year, according to the American Coal Ash Association, a utility industry group.
About half of the 17.7 million tons of FGD gypsum produced in the United States last year was used to make drywall, said Thomas Adams, the association's executive director. But he said it is important to find new uses for it and other coal wastes because the United States will probably rely on coal-fired power plants for decades to come.
"If we can find safe ways to recycle those materials, we're a lot better off doing that than we are creating a whole bunch of new landfills," Adams said.