Is EPA misleading the public about the climate benefits of recycled coal ash?

An environmental watchdog is challenging the federal government's oft-made claim that recycling power plants' coal ash waste into consumer products helps the climate by reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has filed a complaint under the Data Quality Act, also known as the Information Quality Act. The law charges federal agencies with "ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information" that they disseminate.

"Coal is our biggest source of greenhouse gases," says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is the height of absurdity to contend that the toxic wastes produced by coal combustion help our atmosphere."

The EPA makes the controversial claims in materials such as its pamphlet titled "Using Coal Ash in Highway Construction: A Guide to Benefits and Impacts," which says that "using coal combustion products in lieu of other materials, such as Portland cement, reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions."

That statement violates the EPA's own guidelines for calculating lifecycle emissions, PEER observes, as it fails to account for the massive amounts of greenhouse gases released during the mining and burning of the coal. PEER also charges the EPA with making inconsistent and unsourced claims about coal ash, and downplaying its own findings that coal ash reuse does not cut overall emissions.

PEER points out that the EPA has even added a footnote to some of its materials saying it assumes coal ash to be carbon-neutral -- in other words, that it is not a net contributor of carbon to the environment. But in fact, coal power is more carbon-intensive than other energy sources, with U.S. coal-fired power plants producing about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.

The EPA has long had a formal partnership with the coal industry to promote the use of coal ash in products including cement, wallboard, kitchen counters -- even toothpaste. The agency recently suspended its participation in the promotional campaign, called the Coal Combustion Products Partnership or C2P2, while it considers whether to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste.

"EPA is guilty of false advertising," says Ruch. "Using taxpayer dollars to mislead the public adds insult to the injury."