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USDA and EPA Pushing Coal Ash for Agriculture Despite Toxicity Uncertainty

(Beyond Pesticides, October 20, 2009) The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are asking farmers to use coal ash to grow their crops, despite a paucity of research on possible risks, according to documents released October 15, 2009 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). USDA endorses use of coal combustion wastes by farmers “for crop production,” while acknowledging uncertainty on the extent to which “toxic elements” are absorbed into produce entering the market. Beyond Pesticides points out that coal ash is just one of many toxic products “recycled” into fertilizer and encourages people to avoid chemical fertilizers all together in favor of compost and other organic methods.

Coal ash spill in Tennessee, December 2008

Coal ash spill in Tennessee, December 2008

This month, USDA enters the final year of a three-year partnership with EPA as part of a larger effort by the American Coal Ash Association, the Electric Power Research Institute and others to “promote appropriate increased use of” coal ash in agriculture. The implementing Memorandum of Understanding obliges USDA to generate “documentation of the effectiveness, safety and environmental benefits, including bioavailability of trace elements such as mercury, arsenic and selenium…to satisfy the concerns of producers, generators, regulators and the public.”

According to EPA, agriculture annually uses more than 180,000 tons of coal ash and other coal combustion byproducts. There are no federal standards governing agricultural applications of coal ash. EPA has publicly vowed to promulgate hazardous waste rules by the end of 2009 for coal ash, one year after last December’s disastrous coal ash spills from Tennessee Valley Authority sludge ponds.

“USDA should pull out of the coal ash business tomorrow morning,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. “USDA does American agriculture no favors by duping farmers into spreading hazardous wastes across their fields.”

In an April 2, 2009 letter to EPA, USDA Agricultural Research Service Deputy Administrator Steven Shafer expressed “ARS interest” in exploring greater use of coal combustion wastes in crop production as a fertilizer treatment and soil amendment. His letter cites current application of coal ash in growing corn, tomatoes, alfalfa, peanuts, and other crops. While generally sanguine about coal ash use, Mr. Shafer concedes that the “long-term effects…remain a subject of research.” See USDA talking points.

Nonetheless, EPA promotional materials state that EPA and “USDA support the use of” coal combustion byproducts “in appropriate soil and hydrogeologic conditions as an effective method of soil conservation and industrial material recycling.”

“The public does not want its food to come from ‘industrial material recycling’ any more than it wants coal-flavored cauliflower,” Mr. Ruch added. “This coal ash re-use campaign is really just a multi-billion dollar backdoor subsidy to the coal industry to relieve it of the true costs of handling its toxic wastes.”

Coal ash is not the only fertilizer with potential hazards. According to a report by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), the recycling of hazardous industrial wastes into fertilizers introduces several dozen toxic metals and chemicals into the nation’s farm, lawn and garden soils, including such well-known toxic substances as lead and mercury. Many crops and plants extract these toxic metals from the soil, increasing the chance of impacts on human health as crops and plants enter the food supply chain. In CALPIRG tests, each of twenty-nine fertilizers were tested for and found to contain twenty-two toxic metals. Test results for twenty fertilizers showed that they exceed levels of concern for disposal in landfills. Read the Waste Lands report.


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