Waste Coal Fact Sheet v2
Waste Coal
What is waste coal?
Low energy value
Waste coals are the low-energy-value discards of the coal
mining industry. Waste coal is called "culm" in the eastern
PA anthracite region and "gob" or "boney" in the bitiminous
coal mining regions (western PA, WV and elsewhere).
Nationally, waste coal has an average of 60% of the BTU
value of normal coals. It can take up to twice as much
waste coal to produce the same amount of electricity. This
means that -- in most places -- waste coal burners can
only be economically built where huge volumes of waste
coal exist. It would cost too much to truck far-away lowBTU fuel to a centralized burner. Consequently, even if
burning were a
clean solution, it
couldn't deal with
waste coal piles
in more isolated
Nemacolin Gob Pile in Greene County, PA
Waste coal piles accumulated mostly between 1900 and
1970. The piles look like hills or small mountains that are
dark and barren. Hundreds of millions of tons of waste coal
and rock litter the landscape in mining states.
Why is it a problem?
Waste coal piles leach iron, manganese and aluminum
pollution into waterways and cause acid drainage that kills
neighboring streams. These piles sometimes even catch
fire, releasing toxic pollution into the air.
The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act
(SMCRA) recognizes waste coal as potential “toxic forming
material” due to the high sulfur levels that contribute to
acid drainage. The SMCRA law states that burying waste
coal is the best way to reduce acidity from these piles.
The Power Industry’s Answer to Waste Coal:
Fluidized Bed Combustors
Hardly a “state of the art” technology, fluidized bed
combustor (FBC) boiler technology is over 30 years old. It
can be used to burn a wide range of fuels, including very
poor fuels like waste coal. Some have been used to burn
tires and other waste streams. FBC boilers weren’t used
to burn waste coal until 1987, when the first waste coal
plant went online in eastern Pennsylvania.
Poor Economics
According to 2004 testimony by the waste coal burner
trade association, waste coal burners are uneconomical
and require subsidies, for a few reasons. First, the large
volumes of low-Btu fuel require extra handling (more fuel;
more ash). The fact that they’re burning a fuel that is halfrock leads to higher maintenance and repair costs ($1-3
million/year in repairs for smaller plants). FBC burners are
more complicated than normal pulverized coal power
plants. Finally, the lucrative power purchase agreements
signed years ago under the PURPA law are starting to
expire, leaving plants to compete on the open market. The
nation’s first waste coal burner – Westwood Generating
Station in Tremont, PA – reported losing $4 million/year
once they had to compete fairly. The operator has since
curtailed operation, running the plant only when electricity
prices are highest. Most of the new waste coal plants
being proposed would be 4 to 7 times larger than most
existing plants, in order to get the economy of scale to
compete in today’s market.
Where is waste coal being burned?
There are 18 waste coal burning power plants, and 13
more that use it as a secondary fuel, with bituminous coal
as their primary fuel. Fourteen of the 18 waste coal plants
are in PA, 3 are in WV and one is in UT. New ones have
been proposed in PA, WV, KY, IN, IL, CO and VA.
Waste Coal has More Mercury
Waste coal has higher concentration of mercury than
normal coals. In WV and nationally, gob has 4 times more
mercury than bituminous coal. In PA, gob has 3.5 times
more mercury than bituminous coal. Culm has 19% more
mercury than anthracite coal.
Bituminous waste coal also has higher levels of sulfur.
Data on other metals in waste coal is sparse, but single
metals tests on PA culm and gob show both to have about
4 times more chromium and 3 times more lead.
More Mercury Per Megawatt
Since more waste coal must be burned to produce the
same amount of electricity as normal coal would, this
means that – in the states most affected by waste coal
burning – over 6 times as much mercury must be fed into a
waste coal burner to produce the same amount of energy
as a traditional coal power plant. For culm vs. anthracite
coal, it takes nearly twice as much mercury.
More Air Pollution than New Coal Plants
Older coal power plants could not handle waste coal. In
the late 1980's "circulating fluidized bed" (CFB) style
power plants were built which could burn the low-energy
waste coal. Because they were built after the 1970 Clean
Air Act, these CFB power plants have pollution control
equipment that the old ones don't have. This makes it easy
for the waste coal industry to make the claim that their air
emissions are cleaner than 1950s-era coal power plants.
Comparing apples to apples, it is more accurate to
compare air emissions from waste coal burners to the new
coal power plants being proposed. The large new waste
coal burning power plants planned for western PA were
granted permits in 2005 to release higher levels of SO2,
NOx and other air pollutants than the normal pulverized
coal power plant proposed near Morgantown, WV.
Creating Cancer: PAH Pollution
Combustion creates problems that simply don't exist if the
waste coal is left unburned. Anytime you burn coal or
waste coal, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are
created that were not present in the unburned waste coal.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a group of over 100
different chemicals that are formed as byproducts of
combustion. They have a range of toxicity. Most PAHs
are known to cause cancer in animals and are suspected
to cause cancer, birth defects and a wide variety of other
health problems in humans. Fluidized bed combustors
form PAHs more than normal coal burners due to their use
of limestone injection, their lower combustion temperature
range, the low-rank coal being burned and the higher
levels of sulfur and chlorine in the fuel.
Global Warming Pollution: Worse Than Coal
CFB boilers used to burn waste coal convert more of the
nitrogen in the exhaust into nitrous oxide (N2O), as
opposed to nitrogen oxides (NOx ). N2O is a potent global
warming pollutant, 296 times more potent than CO2.
According to the National Coal Council: “N2O is emitted
from fluidized bed coal combustion… N2O emission from
the FBC is equivalent to… an increase of about 15% in
CO2 emissions for an FBC boiler.”
Toxic Ash
Burning waste coal doesn't make the waste go away. If
100 tons of waste coal are burned, 85 tons will remain as
waste coal ash.
Since far more mercury and other toxic contaminants enter
a waste coal burner to produce a given amount of
electricity, these high levels of toxic contaminants have to
come out somewhere. Toxic metals cannot be destroyed
by burning them. To the extent that they are captured in
pollution controls (protecting the air), they are then
concentrated in the highly toxic ash that ultimately
threatens the groundwater wherever this ash is dumped.
Waste coal burners have cleaner air emissions than
antiquated coal plants due to their better pollution controls,
but this only means that the ash is far more toxic, since the
highly toxic particulates captured in pollution control
equipment end up in the ash. The industry claims that
99.8% of the mercury in the fuel is captured and ends up
in their ash.
Waste coal ash is dumped in communities not far from the
waste coal burners, threatening the groundwater and
nearby rivers and streams. Waste coal ash does far more
damage than unburned waste coal piles, leaching many
pollutants, including aluminum, arsenic, cadmium,
chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel,
selenium and sulfates.
Power plant waste is allowed to be dumped without the
basic groundwater protections (landfill liners) that are
required for dumping household trash, a practice harshly
criticized by a 2006 National Academy of Science report
which found inadequate monitoring, dismal enforcement
and a general lack of groundwater protection standards in
mine fill programs where coal and waste coal ash is used
to fill mines. When burning any solid fuel, the resulting ash
has a higher surface area than the raw, unburned material.
Just like with coffee, running water over coffee grounds
leaches far more coffee out than if you ran water over
whole coffee beans.
Mike Ewall
Deep erosion gullies from erosion of “cement-like” waste coal ash dump in
Schuylkill County, PA
The industry claims that by injecting limestone into the
ash, the ash becomes impervious to leaching.
Groundwater monitoring data shows this to be a ile, as
groundwater around waste coal ash dumps has become
more contaminated – even by acid drainage in some
cases – after ash dumping occurs.
The waste coal burning industry's own data shows that
waste coal ash does in fact leach metals into groundwater,
despite their public assertions. Ash at 2 of 12 facilities
studied in Pennsylvania were shown to contain levels of
arsenic higher than the maximum allowable concentration
set forth for land application of sewage sludge. Of 221
samples of leachate from waste coal ash at the ash
dumps, lead contamination in 23 samples (10.4%)
exceeded a level 10 times higher than EPA's maximum
contaminant level (MCL) for drinking water. Six samples
exceeded this "10 times the drinking water standard" level
for cadmium, as did single samples for chromium and
selenium. Data sitting in state regulatory agency files
shows far more evidence of groundwater damage.
Beach Grass: the Safe and Affordable
Alternative to Burning Waste Coal
Researchers at the Natural Resources Conservation
Service found a very cheap and viable alternative to the
conventional waste coal pile remediation method of
grading, topsoiling, seeding and mulching. They found that
beach grass, native to sandy beaches, thrives in waste
coal piles and can establish enough plant cover to enable
native plants to take root. This method has been shown to
bring life back to long-dead waste coal piles for only 6-10%
of the cost of conventional methods. Within a few years,
beach grass enabled native plants to take over, allowing
organic matter to accumulate around plants, forming a
plant layer that stopped erosion, held water, cooled the
surface, and looked better.
Public Policies Must Aim Higher
The waste coal industry has been pushing to include their
facilities in state Renewable Portfolio Standards (and
succeeded in PA), despite the fact that waste coal is not
renewable and that waste coal is a dirtier fuel than normal
coal. Renewable energy laws should not include any
technologies that require air pollution permits.
The waste coal industry argues that the best solution to
waste coal piles is burning them, while other cleaner and
safer alternatives exist. Rather than liberate the toxic
contaminants by burning them, it is preferable to remediate
the waste coal piles in a way that reduces the problems
associated with the piles without creating new problems.
[email protected]
Nov 2007
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