The True Cost of Coal Ash in China

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Photo: Greenpeace | Coal ash storm in Shui Mo-tou Village

Enough toxic coal ash to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two and a half minutes.

Greenpeace: China — Beijing, 15 Sept 2010

China’s coal-fired power plants dump enough toxic coal ash to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two and a half minutes, Greenpeace says in its latest report The True Cost of Coal: An Investigation into Coal Ash in China. Coal ash has now become China’s largest single source of solid waste, due to the country’s heavy reliance on coal.

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375 million tons of coal ash per year.

China is the world’s largest coal user. In 2009 alone, its coal fired plants produced 375 million tons of coal ash. More than 2.5 times the quantity in 2002, when the country began to rapidly expand its coal power sector.

“There are over 1,400 coal-fired power plants scattered across China, and all of them are discharging coal ash every day.” said Yang Ailun, head climate campaigner at Greenpeace China. “This substantially erodes China’s already-scarce land and water resources, while damaging public health and the environment.”

Unfortunately, the government significantly underestimates the quantity of coal ash in the environment, largely because the rate of coal-ash recycling has been vastly exaggerated to 60%. Greenpeace estimates that the real rate is less than half that.

“This creates a false impression that China is reusing most of its coal ash, and that therefore coal ash is a rather small environmental problem,” warned Yang. “Both the government and the public have been misled into seriously underestimating the scale and degree of coal ash pollution in China.”

Vague regulations…

What’s more, many power plants do not follow what vague regulations there exist on coal ash disposal. While investigating 14 power plants around the country, Greenpeace found many ash disposal sites situated illegally close to villages and residential areas, with terrible consequences for the people who live there.

Harmful heavy metals and chemical compounds.

According to testing conducted by Greenpeace, coal ash from the 14 power plants contains more than 20 kinds of heavy metals and chemical compounds. In testing samples of surface water and well water from near disposal sites, Greenpeace found that concentrations of various harmful substances exceeded standards for drinking and irrigation water by multiple times.

Photo: flickr.com | bilwander

“Many of the coal ash disposal sites we visited had poor safeguards to prevent coal ash contamination via wind dispersal or leakage into water,” said Yang. “This affects nearby villages most directly, but it also poses huge threats to all of China, as contaminants enter the food chain, or are scattered by the winds far and wide.”

There is an urgent need for the government to strengthen its regulations and oversight on coal ash disposal, storage and recycling to meet higher safety standards. For the long-term safety of the environment and public health, however, the only solution is to gradually move away from coal.

Yang said, “Coal ash pollution is only one part of the enormous damage coal does to our environment, society and health. The only way to end coal’s death-grip on our environment is to reform our energy structure through massively improving energy efficiency and developing renewable energy.”

More details about coal ash:

Coal ash is the solid particulate matter produced when coal is burned in power stations. The term coal ash includes both fly ash, trapped by dust collection systems, and waste materials (often called bottom ash) that collect on the furnace floor. Fly ash that is not captured by the dust collection systems escapes into the atmosphere and becomes particulate-matter air pollution.

What’s the story with coal in the U.S.?

50 percent of the electricity that heats our houses, lights our schools and powers our industries comes from coal. And contrary to the commercials you may have seen on TV, coal is far from clean. Burning coal results in air and water pollution. Entire mountain tops have been removed in the process of mining coal.

Studies confirm that at least 137 sites in 34 states are leaking a variety of toxic contaminants into nearby air and drinking water supplies, posing significant health threats to those who drink the water or breath in fugitive coal dust–according to a report released September 16, 2010 by Earthjustice and Physicians for Social Responsibility.


For 40 years, American presidents have talked about moving away from coal.

Make Your Voice Count:

For more information, check out my previous post, Clean Coal: Sort of Like Healthy Cigarettes.

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3 Responses

  1. [...] Of Our Waters! Coal ash spill on Lake Michigan. Photo via EarthJustice.org It’s no mystery: coal ash is a dangerous toxic waste that poisons drinking water supplies all over the country. Send a [...]

  2. [...] Out Of Our Waters! Coal ash spill on Lake Michigan. Photo via EarthJustice.org It’s no mystery: coal ash is a dangerous toxic waste that poisons drinking water supplies all over the country. Send a [...]

  3. [...] year power plants generate 140 million tons of coal ash, enough to fill a train stretching from the North Pole to the South [...]

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