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Deadly Toxic Waste Heading To America’s Roads?

Are toxins being added to America's roads?

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A material currently classified as hazardous waste would be added to roads and driveways in Michigan if some state legislators get their way.

The lower chamber of Michigan’s state legislature has passed a bill that would allow the use of potentially toxic coal ash as a road-building material.

Coal ash, the waste leftover from burning coal, can contain a wide variety of toxic materials including lead, mercury and arsenic. Three proposed laws — House Bills 5400, 5401 and 5402 —  reclassify the ash as a beneficial material that can be used as a road base.

“We have very little knowledge about the potentially devastating impacts that these bills will have on our water, our health, and our communities,” Margi Armstrong of Clean Water Action said of the bills.

Ash Could Contain Deadly Mercury

“We’re not going to be putting it into playground sand or anything like that,” one of the bills’ sponsors, Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City), said. “We’re making sure it’s used for roads or projects where it can be contained in a safe way.”

Others, though, disagree.

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“Those roads and parking lots will eventually crumble,” James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said. “Some will be rebuilt, others will be left for future generations to figure out how to repurpose. The placement of industrial byproducts at those sites will make their redevelopment more challenging and be a burden on local units of government.”

Clift is concerned that the toxic chemicals in the coal ash will leak out into groundwater at some point in the future as the roads wear down. Schmidt, though, contends that the ash will be contained by asphalt or concrete used to cover roads.

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The coal ash could also contain high levels of toxic mercury. High levels of mercury can damage the eyes, nervous system, brain, heart, lungs and immune system. Unborn babies and young children are especially susceptible to mercury poisoning.

Coal Ash Contains Several Toxins

Mercury is only one of several toxic materials known to be present in coal ash. Some of the other toxic materials found in coal ash can include:

  • Selenium – which can severely damage the skin, lungs and nervous system.
  • Cadmium – a known carcinogen or cancer-causing substance.
  • Nickel — a carcinogen.
  • Lead – which can cause birth defects and damage the nervous system.
  • Thallium — another substance known to cause birth defects in pregnant women.
  • Radioactive substances including Thorium-228, a known carcinogen

Toxic chemicals from coal ash are known to contaminate the water supply and to build up in fish and other wildlife. Mercury contamination already makes fish and shellfish caught in some bodies of water too dangerous for pregnant women to eat.

Other Kinds of Toxic Waste Could Also Be Used in Roads

The legislation would allow several kinds of waste including cement kiln dust, wood pulp, scrap wood, used asphalt shingles and petroleum sludge leftover from hazardous waste cleanups to be used in road building, Michigan Live reported.

Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act currently bans the use of these materials and coal ash in road building. The proposed bills would amend that law to allow their use. Schmidt believes the materials are safe to use because they are tested for high levels of toxins.

“We have the testing standards in place, and we’re doing the same thing as surrounding states,” Schmidt claimed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and several groups, including the Michigan Farm Bureau support the bills.

The bills will have to pass the Michigan State Senate and be signed by the governor to become law. Michigan Live reported that the bills passed the House by a votes of 68 to 42 and 66 to 44.

Do you support or oppose allowing coal ash to be repurposed in roads? Tell us in the comments section below. 

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