Toxic coal ash a source of concern in China: Greenpeace

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The Independent Online

China's coal-fired plants produce enough toxic ash to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two and a half minutes, creating contaminants that travel far and wide, Greenpeace said Wednesday.

As the world's largest coal user, China's more than 1,400 coal-fired electrical plants produce at least 375 million tonnes of coal ash every year - 2.5 times the quantity in 2002, the environmental group said.

"Every four tonnes of coal burnt produce one tonne of coal ash," Yang Ailun, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace China, told reporters at the launch of a report on the cost of coal in the Asian nation.

"This substantially erodes China's already-scarce land and water resources, while damaging public health and the environment," she said.

The group said many power plants did not follow regulations on coal ash disposal. It investigated 14 plants around the country and found many disposal sites were located too close to villages and residential areas.

It said it had also detected more than 20 different kinds of harmful substances in samples collected from the disposal sites of the plants, including lead, mercury and arsenic.

"Many of the coal ash disposal sites we visited had poor safeguards to prevent coal ash contamination via wind dispersal or leakage into water," Yang said.

"This affects nearby villages most directly, but it also poses huge threats to all of China, as contaminants enter the food chain or are scattered by the winds far and wide."

According to the report, coal ash can spread over an area spanning up to 150,000 square kilometres (60,000 square miles) - the size of Nepal - in high winds.

The harmful substances have been detected in milk cows, it said, adding the government needed to strengthen regulations and oversight on coal ash disposal, storage and recycling.

"Coal ash pollution is only one part of the enormous damage coal does to our environment, society and health," Yang said.

"The only way to end coal's death grip on our environment is to reform our energy structure through massively improving energy efficiency and developing renewable energy."