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Tr-Ash Talk: Alaska Leaders Bury Their Heads In Coal Ash

(Russ Maddox is an Alaska Chapter Sierra Club volunteer.)

As the rest of the nation wakes up and begins to realize how damaging wanton handling and disposal of coal ash truly is, regulators and leaders in Alaska continue to keep their heads buried in the sand, or in this case, coal ash.

The forests of Alaska’s interior fueled the early gold rush. When they became scarce the railroad was pushed south to the coal fields of Nenana to fuel the steamships, massive dredges necessary to access and extract the gold.

These days it’s difficult to tell which hills are natural and which are just massive piles of mine tailings and waste. Along with the coal rush that fueled and heated the gold rush came millions of tons of coal ash. With the majority of the lowlands being wetlands and subject to periodic floods, coal ash was seen as a valuable resource for filling in low areas for development. Peat was mined for use as topsoil to support what was once a thriving local agriculture. Coal ash was and is still routinely used to refill the leftover peat pits to prepare them for development.

After the catastrophic TVA dam collapse residents of Alaska began considering the risks associated with living in such close proximity to such vast amounts of coal ash. Homes, businesses, schools and roads have been routinely built on coal ash fill. According to professors and staff at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, every building and road and parking lot and sports field is built on coal ash generated by the university’s coal-fired power plant. In recent years they ran out of places to use it on campus and now it is hauled off by a contractor.

With three coal-fired power plants sharing the same watershed, airshed, and viewshed with Fairbanks and all who call it home, it is no wonder that the air, water, and soil are often contaminated with heavy metals associated with coal combustion.

Since locals began examining coal ash handling and disposal, the contractors who haul the ash through town have at least begun cooling and tarping loads to reduce spillage on the city’s streets and sidewalks. Knowing the loads were not secure for the previous 60 years is worrisome. Until Alaska’s leaders and regulators wake up and realize how our weak regulations and lack of oversight have led to this unhealthy situation the risks will remain and grow. In Alaska liners are not required, leachate monitoring is not required, engineering of coal ash landfills is not required, and environmental analyses are not conducted.

Here is a report that details coal ash in Alaska and the fact that there is no limit to how long coal ash can be stored. Although there are no restrictions, a permit is required for disposal which has led to piles of coal ash haphazardly “stored” for years. In Alaska’s harsh environment these piles shrink year after year adding more toxins in the soil, air, and water.

It is high time this toxic cycle stopped.