Coal’s Dirty Secret

Read the full story in Q Magazine.

Coal combustion residuals, commonly known as coal ash, are non-combustible components of coal — powdery substances accounting for roughly 10 percent of the weight of coal burned. This includes airborne particles caught in the smokestack filters (fly ash) and material left over in the furnace after coal is burned (bottom ash and boiler slag). Coal is an extremely impure fuel, and the toxins and carcinogens it contains are concentrated into coal ash when it is burned.

Coal ash poses an undeniable human health hazard. It contains particles up to 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair, so it is easily ingested or trapped in the lungs. Once in the body, its chemical cocktail can lead to cancer, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, and birth defects — with especially severe damage to children. The EPA found that living within a single mile of a coal ash disposal site causes a 1-in-50 lifetime risk of cancer.

This raises the crucial, life-and-death question: Where is coal ash stored?

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