EPA says coal ash is safe to use as fertilizer on crops

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it is OK for farmers to spread coal ash on to their fields to fertilize soil, even though the material contains toxins that have been linked to serious health complications such as cancer and liver damage. The agency says that the material contains just a trace amount of toxins that don’t pose a risk to humans through groundwater contamination or by consuming the crops. But environmentalists beg to differ.

The coal ash, a byproduct of fossil fuel plants, which for years farmers have used to fertilize their fields, is also used to strengthen concrete for roads and as filler for recreational fields. It’s a convenient way for coal-firing plants to rid themselves of tons of waste each year. But some fear that the material, especially when used on crops, could be hazardous to human health.

“Basically this is a leap into the unknown,” says Jeff rush, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, to the Associated Press. “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.”

The safety of such byproducts was brought to light a year ago, after more than a billion gallons of coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plant in Kingston, Tenn., spilled from an impoundment pond and covered a nearby community. New testing revealed that coal ash, which was not classified as a hazardous material, contained dangerous toxins and heavy metals that could pose serious health problems for humans. Since then, the EPA has been inspecting coal ash sites across the country and is establishing guidelines for safe storage, expected to be unveiled early next year.

Despite the presence of dangerous toxins in coal ash, the EPA says scattering the material on crops is “safe in appropriate soil and hydrogeologic conditions.” But is it worth the risk? For a dozen years, Decatur Utilities in Alabama distributed waste in the form of sludge from its treatment plant to farmers as free fertilizer for their crops. While the EPA was aware that the waste in fertilizer could be dangerous to humans as early as 1979, it wasn’t until last year that the EPA realized that the fertilizer was actually being dumped onto crops. Decatur Utilities quickly halted the practice. This month, the agency announced it would test the blood of as many as 200 residents in Lawrence County for potential toxic chemicals.