Bill Hopkins, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife sciences at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources, told representatives on Capitol Hill last week that filling mines with the residues of coal combustion is a viable way to dispose of those materials, provided they are placed in a way that avoids adverse human health and environmental effects.

Hopkins, an expert on ecotoxicology and specifically on the effects of coal combustion wastes on fish and wildlife, briefed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the Department of Interior and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was attended by a White House representative.

“Enforceable federal standards are needed to guide the placement of coal ash in mines to minimize risks.” Hopkins told the groups.

Coal ash is the residue left after coal is burned to generate power and also consists of materials trapped by pollution control devices. “The problem is not a small one,” Hopkins said. “Coal waste is one of the largest solid waste streams in the world. In the U.S. alone we produce more than 120 millions tons a year, enough to fill a million railroad cars.”

Hopkins noted that the report supports additional use of some residues in industrial applications, such as the manufacturing of cement and wall board. Returning the residues to mines has some advantages because the ash can provide filler for mine reclamation efforts that restore land use conditions. The residues also may neutralize acid mine drainage and thus reduce environmental contamination. “Another benefit,” Hopkins added, “is we don’t need to disturb other land for landfills to dump this waste.”

The report called for federal guidelines because coal residues contain such toxic substances as arsenic, chromium, and selenium that could harm the environment. Hopkins and his fellow scientists who wrote the report recommend that minefills be designed so that movement of water through the residues is minimized.

The congressionally mandated report was sponsored by EPA and prepared by Hopkins and his colleagues under the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. This private, nonprofit institution provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

Copies of "Managing Coal Combustion Residues in Mines" will be available from the National Academies Press, and can be found here.

To view information on Hopkins’ amphibians research, go here.