Toxic Coal Ash is China’s Single Largest Source of Solid Waste

Press release - 2010-09-15
Beijing, 15 Sept 2010 – China’s coal-fired power plants dump enough toxic coal ash to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every two and a half minutes, Greenpeace says in its latest report The True Cost of Coal: An Investigation into Coal Ash in China. Coal ash has now become China’s largest single source of solid waste, due to the country’s heavy reliance on coal.

June, 2010. A "coal ash storm" in Shuimotou Village, Shuozhou, Shanxi Province, where Shentou No.2 Power Plant is located.

As the world's largest coal user, China produces at least 375 million tons of coal ash annually - more than 2.5 times the quantity in 2002, when the country began to rapidly expand its coal power sector. "There are over 1,400 coal-fired power plants scattered across China, and all of them are discharging coal ash every day." said Yang Ailun, head climate campaigner at Greenpeace China. "This substantially erodes China's already-scarce land and water resources, while damaging public health and the environment."

Unfortunately, the government significantly underestimates the quantity of coal ash in the environment, largely because the rate of coal-ash recycling has been vastly exaggerated to 60%. Greenpeace estimates that the real rate is less than half that. "This creates a false impression that China is reusing most of its coal ash, and that therefore coal ash is a rather small environmental problem," warned Yang. "Both the government and the public have been misled into seriously underestimating the scale and degree of coal ash pollution in China."

What's more, many power plants do not follow what vague regulations there exist on coal ash disposal. While investigating 14 power plants around the country, Greenpeace found many ash disposal sites situated illegally close to villages and residential areas, with terrible consequences for the people who live there.

According to testing conducted by Greenpeace, coal ash from the 14 power plants contains more than 20 kinds of heavy metals and chemical compounds. In testing samples of surface water and well water from near disposal sites, Greenpeace found that concentrations of various harmful substances exceeded standards for drinking and irrigation water by multiple times. "Many of the coal ash disposal sites we visited had poor safeguards to prevent coal ash contamination via wind dispersal or leakage into water," said Yang. "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."

There is an urgent need for the government to strengthen its regulations and oversight on coal ash disposal, storage and recycling to meet higher safety standards. For the long-term safety of the environment and public health, however, the only solution is to gradually move away from coal. Yang said, "Coal ash pollution is only one part of the enormous damage coal does to our environment, society and health. 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."


Shelley Jiang, Media Officer, Greenpeace China

+86-10-65546931 ext 149

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1) Coal ash is the solid particulate matter produced when coal is burned in power stations. The term coal ash includes both fly ash, trapped by dust collection systems, and waste materials (often called bottom ash) that collect on the furnace floor. Fly ash that is not captured by the dust collection systems escapes into the atmosphere and becomes particulate-matter air pollution.

2) To gain a better understanding of the current state of China’s coal ash pollution, Greenpeace conducted investigations at impoundments owned by 14 coal-fired power stations from January to August this year (the results of our investigation are included in Chapter 2 of the report). When selecting power stations, we made efforts to choose samples from a range of different regions, operational ages, installed capacities and parent companies. The total installed capacity of the 14 power plants is 26.15 GW, or about 4% of the current installed capacity of China’s coal-fired power plants.