Columbia's cinder use raises the toxicity question

Debate on the merits of putting ash on snow-covered streets continues
Wednesday, March 24, 2010 | 9:11 p.m. CDT; updated 11:39 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The city of Columbia Public Works Department uses cinders provided for free by the Columbia Municipal Power Plant on icy roads.

COLUMBIA — Cinders are dirty. Cinders are cheap. Cinders increase traction on snow- and ice-covered roads. What remains unclear is whether they do significant harm to the environment.

The city of Columbia has used cinders to provide traction on snowy and icy roads for years, but it has done so in the face of nearly constant complaints from residents who say they’re ugly and bad for the environment.


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Late this winter, Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill helped persuade the Public Works Department to eliminate cinders from its anti-snow arsenal for at least one winter storm and to rely on salt and calcium chloride.

Although Thornhill said response from constituents was positive, Public Works spokeswoman Jill Stedem said it’s too early to tell whether the city can eliminate cinders from winter storm-fighting altogether. She said the City Council would reach a decision this summer.

Still, the debate over cinders' toxicity rages on, both here and across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency to date has identified no environmental damage from the “beneficial use” of coal cinders on snow and ice, or in other uses such as cement or road construction, according to the agency's Web site.

Columbia’s cinders

The Municipal Power Plant provides the cinders that Columbia uses on its streets, made up of coal and waste wood burned to produce electricity. In July 2008, the City Council requested an examination of the chemical compounds in these cinders, according to a 2008 report by Public Works Director John Glascock. Experiment Station Chemical Laboratories at MU tested an ash sample consisting of 85 percent coal ash and 15 percent white oak ash.

When comparing Columbia's ash toxin levels to national medians, the EPA couldn't comment on the danger of Columbia's coal ash because it depends on so many different environmental factors, including the types of coal burned and whether the ash includes wood. Generally speaking, the toxin levels in Columbia cinders trended lower than most.

EPA spokeswoman Tisha Petteway said in an e-mail interview that the toxic potential of substances such as arsenic, mercury and lead in ash depends on factors such as the potential for the ash to reach ground and surface water, or the potential that people might inhale or ingest it. The size of ash particles and the composition of soils are also factors. Without exact data on each of these factors, the precise risk posed by Columbia cinders is hard to nail down.

Abigail Dillen is a lawyer with Earthjustice, a law firm that works with environmental groups to preserve, protect and promote clean energy and natural resources. She said any level of chemicals can make coal ash dangerous.

"The level of toxins that are in that ash can vary, but it's never the kind of thing that you want to put anywhere where it's going to come into contact with water," Dillen said.

According to Glascock’s report, no one requires the city to test ash from its power plant or to monitor its composition. Water and Light Department spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said the power plant has used the same EPA-approved coal supplier for 15 years. Still, it tested its ash at the council’s request in 2008.

Beneficial bottom ash

Coal combustion produces four kinds of ash: fly ash, bottom ash, boiler ash and flue gas desulfurization material, according to the EPA. Bottom ash is the type usually used to combat snow and ice; nearly 700,000 of the more than 8 million tons of bottom ash used in 2008 served this purpose nationwide, according to an EPA survey.

It’s not only snowy and icy roads that get the cinder treatment. This past winter, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency dropped bottom ash on the Platte River to induce uniform melting and to reduce ice jams, said Brian McManus, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.

The ice jams prompted Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman to declare a state of emergency in February. That, in turn, prompted the ash drop. McManus said his department determined the cinders to be inert and allowed the emergency management agency to dump half a pound of cinders per square yard of ice.

"Basically there was a detailed analysis done to make sure that there was no content within the ash of hazardous constituents to exceed water quality limits," he said.

Permits are renewed every five years. He said this was only the fourth time since 1979 that the state dusted the Platte River with ash.

The coal ash debate

Environmental groups have long demanded more EPA regulation of coal ash. Earthjustice is one such group. Dillen said while some uses of coal ash are benign, it’s dangerous to put it in an environment where it could seep into ground water.

“It’s the kind of thing that you’d want to think about pretty carefully before using,” Dillen said. “All of the toxic, heavy metals in coal… those are all in coal ash.”

In March 2009, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sponsored Senate Resolution 64, asking the EPA to exercise greater control over coal combustion waste, according to the Library of Congress’s online database. The resolution says the EPA lacks consistent federal protections for coal waste disposal and that coal ash should be considered a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The resolution identifies potentially harmful metals in coal ash, such as arsenic, lead, selenium, mercury, cadmium, beryllium, chromium, thorium and uranium, as found by the National Academy of Sciences. It details the dangers of dumping coal ash in landfills and surface impoundments, arguing that it could mix with surface water or migrate to soil and ground water. The resolution would mandate immediate examinations of landfills and impoundments. It is working its way through the Senate Subcommittee on Environment and Public Works.

Earthjustice hopes the measure passes. “I think the first order of business is to regulate it as the hazardous waste it is,” Dillen said, adding that the legislation could create incentives for power companies to create less coal waste.

If the resolution passes, it could jeopardize Columbia’s practice of using cinders on streets. But it stems from an episode of national prominence.

In December 2008, more than 1 million gallons of fly ash sludge flowed into the Emory River when a dike broke at the Tennessee Valley Authority Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn., according to the EPA. The resolution calls for safer coal ash disposal and for the TVA to lead the charge.

The TVA spill caught the attention of the EPA. In Columbia, it stirred Ken Midkiff to action.

Midkiff is conservation chair for the Osage Group of the Sierra Club and a water quality monitor for the Missouri Clean Water Campaign. He said he noticed this year that samples he collected from Flat Branch were tinted black after the city used cinders on roads. His samples from the creek lately have been clearer.

Coal Ash Disposal

Although coal combustion products appear to have some uses, only about 37 percent of the nation's coal ash produced in 2008 was put to “beneficial use.”That includes cinders used on snow and ice. Petteway, of the EPA, said 34 percent of coal ash waste, or 46 million tons, were dumped in landfills, a common practice for plants without economic means to dispose of it otherwise.

Westar Energy, which runs four coal-burning power plants in Kansas, uses ash from some of its plants and puts the rest in landfills.

"Ash from two of our power plants is sold to both concrete manufacturers and companies that use the material for roadbed stabilization,” Westar spokeswoman Erin La Row said. She said landfilled ash is stored on-site and monitored to ensure it has no environmental impact.

David Gaier, spokesman for NRG Energy Inc., which oversees coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and abroad, said NRG’s plants send some coal ash to landfills.

"We only landfill about half of it," Gaier said. "The other half we do sell for commercial uses like cement or concrete."

The EPA’s Web site dictates beneficial use of coal ash to include use as a filler in road construction and cement production as well as traction material.

Midkiff said using coal ash in cement reduces the potential hazard by sealing toxic substances from the environment. He sees this as a way to recycle cinders with little impact.

Dillen, of Earthjustice, is unsure about that.

“There’s not that many so-called recycling uses that are really safe,” Dillen said.

Gaier said coal ash is exported from plants for beneficial use when the economics support selling it. When there’s no demand for coal ash, they are landfilled.

Scott Brooks of the TVA said it does the same. “We’d like to sell more, but there isn’t a viable market for it currently.”

Brooks said TVA does a combination of on-site waste storage and commercial sale for recycling uses. He said he didn’t know of any state in the TVA area that uses coal ash for snow and ice. Those decisions are left to state highway departments.

Few state transportation departments incorporate coal cinders in their snow-removal plans. Iowa uses salt, while Kansas uses salt brine, rock salt and sand. The Missouri Department of Transportation uses salt and, in some areas, beet juice.

Snow without cinders

Snow removal is usually inevitable come wintertime, but Midkiff believes there are safer means of doing so than with ash.

"Salt is the best of a bad lot," he said. Although leaving snow on the streets is the most environmentally friendly option, Midkiff acknowledges that would cause complaints.

"There's a line between public safety and using the most benign product, which appears to be some chloride compound," he said.

As of March 24, the city had used 4,673 tons of salt, Stedem of the Public Works Department said. That takes up $280,380 of the $724,160 snow-removal budget for fiscal 2010.

Glascock’s 2008 report to the City Council said that during the winter of 2006-07, the city spent $176,504 on calcium chloride and salt. Had cinders not been used, that cost would have risen to nearly $558,000.

Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said those figures are guesses and the feasibility of eliminating cinders depends on real-world trials this year.

“If you could make the decision based on solely public input, there would be no question,” Thornhill said. He said that public feedback on snow removal without cinders was overwhelmingly positive and that officials generally agree eliminating them is the best option.

Stedem said the city will evaluate snow-removal costs and materials at the end of the season and determine whether the city can stop using cinders.

If that happens, Kacprowicz said, the city should have no problem giving them away.

“In the past, we’ve worked with the state of Missouri and other cities and counties in the area,” she said. Most of these entities use the cinders for road traction.

For now, cinders remain a subject of debate. Although their future on local roads could be affected by national regulation, it hinges more critically on the city’s pocketbook.

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Dale Jones March 24, 2010 | 9:29 p.m.

I have lived in many nice cities. This is the only city that uses ash. Ash is very dirty. It ruins carpeting, gets on shoes, very difficult to clean in garages, and etc. Come on, Columbia, get modern and use salt. Columbia using ash is unbelievable.

(Report Comment)
Beverly Schooler March 25, 2010 | 7:57 a.m.

The cinders also get on to the pant legs of people as they get in their vehicles and it is hard to get out.

(Report Comment)
Thomas Adams March 26, 2010 | 1:52 p.m.

It is interesting that bottom ash has been used for decades in communities for traction control. No documented cases of damage exist. But the very fact that the material comes from COAL fired power plants makes it suspect in the minds of those opposed to coal fired generation.

Want to use salt? First, get your wallet out and be prepared to pay more. Second, salt has significant effect on the watershed and plants. Third, salt tracks into houses just like other materials. Fourth, better be sure your car is undercoated. Salt attacks metal if the metal is not protected. Fifth, the more salt you put on roads, the faster the roads and bridges deteriorate as the salt brine reaches reinforcing steel.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 26, 2010 | 4:26 p.m.

A trip down memory lane. Prior to 1950 large numbers of natural gas pipelines did not exist; many Midwest cities used bituminous coal as their primary commercial and residential heating source.

One result was that during the winter months the cinders/ash supply was abundant; in fact some business gave them away if the taker would haul them away. Cinders/ash was the standard for traction control and snow and ice melting. Cinders and ash are dark in color and are good absorbers of sunlight, even at temperatures below freezing.

The "coal era" wasn't without its drawbacks. Even then I'm sure ladies complained about having cinders and/or ash tracked into the house. We lived with it, because that was how it was. The amount of suspended particular matter (from stacks and chimneys) was considerable. One interesting effect was that winter sunsets were often spectacular, with gorgeous red and salmon hues, caused by the rays of the setting sun being diffused by the airborne particles.

Are we healthier now than folks were then? Theoretically we should be, but are we?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 26, 2010 | 7:15 p.m.

Ellis Smith wrote:

"Are we healthier now than folks were then? Theoretically we should be, but are we?"

A lot of that has to do with exercise. Post WW II a lot of people still walked to work, and they didn't have a lot of the labor saving devices we do now. A leaf blower might be a neat idea, but a rake gets the job done also (better?) and give one a mild workout.

Man was not meant to sit on his butt watching TV and eat potato chips.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 27, 2010 | 4:59 a.m.

Agreed, Mark. Here's another and perhaps more telling way to look at it.

In the "bad old days" we had fewer options as to what to do with both our time and our bodies. We had to do what we had to do, because no other options existed. Today we have many options but aren't doing a good job about exercising them.

You wouldn't believe all the lawns -even big lawns- that were mowed using a reel mower with the power supplied to the mower by the person pushing it.

(Report Comment)

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