WASHINGTON - October 15 - The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are asking farmers to use coal ash to grow their crops, despite a paucity of research on possible risks, according to documents released today 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.
This month, USDA enters the final year of a three-year partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency 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, Shafer concedes that the "long-term effects...remain a subject of research."
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," 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."
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.