EcoAlert: Ash Clouds Loom Over China

Great-wall-at-badaling Ash, generated by the combustion of coal, is China’s single biggest source of solid industrial waste and, according to Greenpeace, one of its gravest pollution problems. The international campaign group has issued a new report on the substance, also known simply as coal ash, which argues that China has severely underestimated the extent of the crisis. Not only are the quantities rising, it says, but there is no control over the long-term pollution the ash creates.


“China’s fly-ash problem is unique,” says Yang Ailun, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace. “It is an inevitable consequence of coal-fired power generation, since every four tons of coal burned produces one ton of ash. Since 2002, when China started a rapid expansion of its coal sector, coal ash production has gone up two and a half times.”

On September 15, Greenpeace China published The True Cost of Coal: An Investigation into Coal Ash in China. The report estimates the country produced 375 million tons of coal ash in 2009—more than twice that year’s total urban-waste production. In terms of volume, that’s 424 million cubic metres a year, enough to fill a standard swimming pool every two and a half minutes. If this waste is not dealt with appropriately, it will become a grave threat to the environment and to public health.

According to the report, China meets 70 percent of its energy needs through coal, with electricity generation accounting for half of all coal consumption. The heavy metals and radioactive substances present in coal remain in the ash, where they exist in higher concentrations.

Between January and August this year, Greenpeace surveyed the coal ash disposal sites of 14 Chinese power plants. According to the report, more than 20 different toxic substances, including heavy metals and chemical compounds harmful to human health and the environment were found. Although concentrations of heavy metals and other substances are lower than in other forms of industrial waste, the sheer quantity of coal ash produced means the actual quantities of harmful substances released into the environment are still substantial. But as the impact of the ash on the environment and human health takes time to emerge, it is easily overlooked.

Greenpeace’s investigations found that both surface and well water around many coal power plants did not meet official standards.

The report highlights another potential danger-point. If rainstorms or floods caused landslides at the sites of the impoundments, then the tens of thousands of tons of stored coal ash—containing heavy metals and other toxins—would present a serious threat to both public health and the environment. Such disasters have happened before. In June 2006, a leak from the coal dam at Pan County Power Plant in Guizhou, southwestern China, sent 300,000 tons of coal ash into the Tuochang River.

The Greenpeace report says that, in accordance with central government requirements, many local governments have set a provincial or municipal target of reusing 60 percent of the fly-ash produced. Both central and local government have put preferential policies in place accordingly, such as funding or tax breaks for projects using coal ash. But Yang Ailun is not convinced by the figures. “The issue of coal-ash pollution has never received the attention it deserves,” she says. “The biggest misconception is the belief that 60 percent or more of China’s coal ash is reused—in reality it’s less than 30 percent.”

The main cause for this is poor quality, weakly implemented and nonbinding legislation, and a failure to consider the unique scale of the issue, argues Greenpeace. Also, the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s coal ash discharge fee of 30 yuan per ton is an ineffective deterrent.

Via Reuters

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