Coal Ash: China's Forgotten Pollutant

Feature Story - 2010-09-19
When people think of dirty coal, air pollution usually comes first to mind. But coal ash, the solid byproduct of burning coal, has many devastating impacts – after all, this is China's largest source of solid waste. Read on for a photo essay on coal ash's dirty footprint all around China.

A brooding evening rainstorm partially obscures the Shentou Number 2 Power Plant, Shuozhou, Shanxi province. Its ash pond is in the foreground.

When people think of dirty coal, air pollution usually comes first to mind. But coal ash, the solid byproduct of burning coal, has many devastating impacts - after all, this is China's largest source of solid waste, and its volume in the environment is increasing everyday.

There are more than 1,400 coal-fired power plants in China, producing enough coal ash to fill one Olympic-sized swimming pool every 2.5 minutes. Over 375 million tons of it are produced in a year, and like trash, it all must be stored somewhere.

Watch The True Cost of Coal on Youtube

Greenpeace investigated 14 power plants and found that many of their disposal sites are often badly built, without proper safeguards. The coal ash can easily leak or spill, creating great health hazards for the surrounding residents.

In Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, the Togtoh Power Station belongs to the China Datang Corp, one of the country’s Big Five power companies, and has an installed capacity of 5.4GW. One of Asia’s biggest thermal power stations, it produces about 4.6 million tons of coal ash every year.

Coal ash is not innocuous - after burning, the chemical compounds in coal become far more concentrated in coal ash than in raw coal. Lab tests by Greenpeace found more than 20 different heavy metals and chemicals in coal ash samples.

Though the villages nearby are the most affected, coal ash also damages the entire country through wind (dust storms, anyone?), water, and contamination of the food chain.

Coal ash is just one of the reasons why the cost of coal is to high for China - and the world - to bear. From greenhouse gas emissions to air pollution, coal demands an unsustainable price from our planet - that's why Greenpeace is calling for an energy revolution now, so that we can transition our economy to clean, renewable energy.

Below you'll find some of the compelling images of our fieldwork investigation among the power plants of Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, and Guizhou province.

Ash chokes the sky above a coal ash dam owned by the Shentou Number 2 Power Plant, in Shuimotou village, Shuozhou, Shanxi province. With even the lightest wind, the tiny particles take flight, blotting out the sky like a thick sandstorm of ash. This is also highly hazardous to people, as the fine particles are easily inhaled.

The Shentou Number 2 Power Plant's disposal site does not have any safeguards - not even retaining walls - to protect against coal ash dispersal or leakage. The only preventative measure taken has been to compact the outermost coal ash to form a makeshift dam.

There are villages all around the coal ash landfill, and among them, Shuimotou village is the closest and most seriously polluted. The continuous seepage of coal-ash water from the ash pond has soaked into the foundations of most of the village houses, causing them to deform, their walls to develop cracks or even collapse.

Zhao Picheng's home is among one of the severely damaged ones. Continued leakage from the plant's coal ash pond has raised groundwater levels, flooding cellars in the village. After a large part of his roof fell off, Zhao Picheng and his family had no choice but to move. A thick layer of coal ash has settled on the abandoned bed.

Another village near to Shuimotou and the Shentou Number 2 Power Plant, Mayi can trace its history to before the Tang dynasty; it even has an ancient city wall. But the arrival of the coal ash disposal site has irrevocably changed this ancient village. Leakages from ash ponds has flooded cellars, cattle and sheep have difficulty reproducing, and fields are no longer fertile.

The people of Mayi village have reported the problems of coal ash pollution to the Shentou Number 2 Power Station several times, but to no avail.

The power station's only response has been to merely continue with its "ecological management" that involves erecting dead stalks of maize around the coal ash disposal site to act as a "wind break."

The dried maize "windbreak"

This is the coal ash disposal site for the Yuanbaoshan Power Plant, in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. Its surface is as strange as the alien landscape of the moon.


Less than half a kilometre away, there is a dairy collection station for a famous dairy company.

On windy days, the coal ash gets scattered far across the earth, blanketing the vegetation. Cows that eat grass contaminated by coal ash will produce less milk by as much as 2kg a day. Many of the people of Xinglongpo village are very worried about the effect of the pollution on the health of their cows.

The disposal site is located in a small valley, which the power plant has divided into more than 10 sections. One by one, as each section is filled up, the Yuanbaoshan Power Plant covers the ash pile with dirt and then plants crops on top. It is meant to control against wind dispersal, but instead the crops just create another way for poisonous heavy metals to enter the food chain.

The Pannan Power Plant in Pan county, Liupanshui, Guizhou province, sits in a small valley. Its coal ash disposal site is located in Zhaluji village. Zhaluji's fields on the valley floor have already been buried by coal ash, but the villagers still plant crops on the mountain slopes. Several seepage wells have been built for drainage purposes, discharging ash slurry directly into the Xiangshui River.

Phase 1 of the coal ash dam covers more than 2,000 mu (133.33 hectares), but Zhaluji village resident Zhou Yixian told us that the power plant has already begun building Phase 2 and 3 "right in the valley behind our home, where on the mountain we have a primary school."

Read our report: The True Cost of Coal: An Investigation into Coal Ash in China