Should green buildings use recycled coal ash?

A whistleblower group asks the Green Buildings Council to hold back LEED certification for buildings containing materials made from coal waste.
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor

What does it take for a green building to become LEED certified? The Green Building Council decides, and it's revising its criteria this year to account for the evolving market in green architecture and design.

One group hopes to take building materials that contain recycled coal ash off the table for certification—and out of the walls, cement, carpeting, flooring, roofing, pipes, paint, kitchen counter, basically everything but the kitchen sink.

A leftover product of coal combustion, coal ash (also called fly ash) can contain arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, cadmium, and selenium. According to the American Coal Ash Association, power plants produced 136 million tons of coal ash in 2008. Nationwide, there are 900 landfills (for burying dry ash) and impoundments (or ponds for storing wet coal ash).

Disposing of so much waste has been a problem. Kingston, Tennessee had a containment pond spill about a billion gallons of liquid coal ash, which covered 300 acres of land and contaminated a river (image above). One disposal strategy, which the EPA includes in its approaches to regulate coal ash, has been to recycle the stuff.

According to PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), certifying coal ash products as green is misleading because the toxins they contain wind up in our indoor and outdoor environments. Such materials, they say, also support the coal industry, along with the greenhouse gases it emits, and therefore should be disallowed in their building and interior construction ratings.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a statement:

LEED now gives green credit for what is an ultimately brown act – putting coal ash into our homes, schools, and office buildings. If coal power generators had to responsibly handle their wastes, coal would not be so much cheaper than solar and other renewable power sources.

As technologies that strip toxins from plant emissions improve, pollutants such as mercury may become more concentrated in the combustion residue, reports 60 Minutes. Currently LEED standards limit the amount of mercury in cement made with coal ash to 5.5 parts per billion.

The USGBC has extended the public comment period to today. Another period will begin in July, before committee members will vote on the final rules.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons

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