Why Toxic Coal Waste May End Up In Your Food

coal power plant

There is a long history of the US pushing industrial waste onto agriculture and our water supplies (water fluoridation, anyone?), and it continues today with the government’s hope to spread a chalky waste product from coal-fired power plants, FGD gypsum, on fields of crops.

FGD gypsum (flue gas desulfurization gypsum) is a synthetic form of the mineral gypsum, and it contains mercury, arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. It is produced by scrubbers that remove sulfur dioxide from power plant emissions, and the 17.7 million tons of the stuff are piling up around US power plants.

The Washington Post notes:

The Environmental Protection Agency says those toxic metals occur in only tiny amounts that pose no threat to crops, surface water or people. But some environmentalists say too little is known about how the material affects crops, and ultimately human health, for the government to suggest that farmers use it. “This is a leap into the unknown,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “This stuff has materials in it that we’re trying to prevent entering the environment from coal-fired power plants, and then to turn around and smear it across ag lands raises some real questions.”

Here’s the problem. Creating energy from fossil fuels, whether it be from coal, natural gas, or oil, is an extremely dirty process. Not only are these processes polluting and contributing to climate change, they are responsible for a huge amount of industrial waste products that are not easy to dispose of. It’s a double whammy for the environment and our health. (Triple when you include the extraction of fossil fuels!)

The EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture started pushing “beneficial uses”of FGD gypsum during the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration continues to promote usage of the waste in agriculture. Use of the material in farming has more than tripled, from 78,000 tons in 2002 to 279,000 tons spread on fields last year, according to the American Coal Ash Association, a utility industry group. Not only that, half of the 17.7 million tons of FGD gypsum produced was used in the manufacturing of drywall, too.

Fossil fuels create toxic waste by-products, which are all too difficult to dispose of. Unfortunately, the government is all too willing to allow their usage in our food, water, and homes. FGD gypsum is just another waste that may end up on fields of crops that feed us and our families.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davipt/ / CC BY 2.0

  1. Nexyoo

    Wow- as if there weren’t already enough problems caused by coal. I can’t believe that the government would even consider putting coal plant waste on our fields. This is definitely a situation that seems to warrant the precautionary principle.

  2. rich albertson

    The appropriate tests is to grow crops on lands that have received the proposed level of disposal at least one year earlier. The crop tells you if you should be afraid by sucking up the heavy metals along with its water. EPA did the same tests back in the 70’s when they were trying to determine whether treated sewage sludge could be land spread for disposal. They botched the test so the results were inconclusive but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea. I can promise you this stuff could not pass muster.

  3. Global Patriot

    The simple rule should be, only put those things into the soil which naturally occur in the soil. I doubt that includes mercury, arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals when it comes to land used for agriculture.

  4. Steve Savage

    Numbers would be helpful here. What levels of heavy metals are we talking about? Global Patriot implies that mercury, arsenic and lead don’t occur naturally. They certainly do. Animal manure and compost contain heavy metals as well. The question is one of quantity and that is the perspective that is absent in post.

    Oh, by the way, 279,000 tons sounds like a lot, but that is actually a tiny amount on 2-400 million acres of farmland.

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