EPA scolded for misleading promotion of coal ash reuse


The Environmental Protection Agency's website promoting the so-called "beneficial reuse" of toxic coal ash withheld critical information about the risks involved, according to a report [pdf] released last week by the EPA Office of Inspector General.

The IG looked at the Coal Combustion Products Partnership (C2P2), a promotional campaign and website that partnered with industry to promote the use of coal ash in various products and applications. The waste left after coal is burned to product electricity, coal ash contains toxins including arsenic and lead as well as radioactive elements.

The IG's report focused on the large-scale dumping of coal ash in what are known as structural fills. These may involve the use of coal ash as a substitute for fill dirt in unlined pits as part of construction projects or dumping coal ash into sand and gravel pits -- a practice that can put coal ash in contact with groundwater.

EPA's proposed federal rule on coal ash, which is currently under consideration, identified seven cases in which such uses of coal ash caused damage to human health or the environment.

"EPA states in its proposed rule that it does not consider large-scale placement of [coal combustion residues] as representing beneficial use," the report states. "However, EPA's C2P2 Website, which contained general risk information, did not disclose this EPA decision and did not make the seven damage cases readily accessible."

A Facing South investigation identified three coal ash structural fill sites across North Carolina that caused contamination of groundwater or surface water. These sites were also detailed in a Sierra Club report [pdf].

In addition, the IG faulted the C2P2 website for including materials giving the appearance that EPA endorses commercial products, which is prohibited by EPA ethics policies and communications guidelines. The report found that nine of 23 case studies on the website reference commercial products made with coal ash or patented business technologies.

"All 23 of the studies were marked with EPA's official logo but none had the required disclaimer stating that EPA does not endorse the commercial products," the report said.

Since the IG contacted EPA about its concerns back in June, the agency suspended the C2P2 website. The IG's report also recommends that the agency identify why actions prohibited by EPA policy occurred and to implement controls to establish accountability.

The EPA's efforts to promote the reuse of coal ash have sparked controversy before: Earlier this year, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a complaint under federal law over the EPA's claims that recycling coal ash waste into consumer products helps the climate by reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

The EPA will be accepting comments on its proposed rule through Nov. 19.