The months of relentless winter weather that have pummeled much of the nation have forced many communities to get creative when it comes to de-icing roads. With salt for roads in short supply, everything from beet juice to cheese brine is being used to help drivers stay in control on slippery streets — including coal ash.
That’s right, for years, cities and towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, and Colorado have sprayed the toxic waste on roads to combat winter ice and snow. Municipalities often get it for free from power plants who are eager to dispose of it somehow and it never seems to be in short supply.
Coal ash, the residue left over from burning coal to generate electricity, contains some very dangerous substances including arsenic, lead, mercury chromium, and cadmium. When coal ash washes from a road into a ditch or storm sewer it can leach toxic compounds into the water and soil.
According to the American Coal Ash Association, 256,000 tons of coal ash were distributed for use on roads in 2012.
Barb Gottlieb, director of environment and health for Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that using coal ash in this way “should be recognized as a problem.” She singled out chromium, for example, as a “very dangerous carcinogen” that is even more dangerous when wet.
EPA tests of the ash spread on roads have found that the concentration of arsenic varied wildly from 0.5 to 168 parts per million. The Centers for Disease control considers 3–4 ppm typical for uncontaminated soil.
“I don’t think it can be assumed to be safe,” Lisa Evans of Earthjustice told Midwest Energy News. “This isn’t sand. It’s not benign.”
“I’m a big supporter of cinders,” Randy Hill, director of public works in Muscatine, Iowa told Midwest Energy News. “They wouldn’t give it to us if it wasn’t safe.”
Of course, not even comparatively harmless salt, is without environmental consequences.
When rock salt can build up in soil near roadways and kill trees. When runoff ends up n nearby streams, the salinity in the waterways can spike to levels that are dangerous for aquatic life.