In piles of waste coal and heaps of ash from boilers that burn coal, Bob Baron sees a product rather than an environmental liability. Now the piles of ash, culm or gob turn rainwater into acids and release metals which foul creeks and spoil soil. Yet the corporation that Baron represents, Keystone Metals Recovery of Columbia, Md., sees a way to pull the metals from the waste and turn them into aircraft frames, armor for military vehicles and food and beverage cans. America generates 120 million tons of coal ash a year, mostly from plants that produce electricity. Pennsylvania alone has several hundred million tons of aluminum and five million tons of titanium in its ash piles of waste coal and ash, according to Keystone's literature.
Each year, Pennsylvania churns out about 10 million tons of ash, mostly from power plants. In addition, the state has 820 piles of waste coal, which, together with abandoned mines, helped contaminate 3,100 miles of streams, according to a 2004 report. "This is the cure for what they're complaining about,"Baron said. His remedy reclaims metals from ash and waste coal, leaving only sand. "Pure sand comes out. You could put it in a baby's playpen,"he said. For at least 18 years, Pennsylvania permitted the use of ash to fill some of the state's 5,000 abandoned mines. But that practice came under question 18 months ago after a dam in Kingston, Tenn. burst, sending an avalanche of coal ash slurry over homes and land and into water, which showed unsafe levels of metals. After the accident, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency decided to analyze the best options about how to regulate the disposal of coal ash, for which it previously declined to set rules. In one option, the federal government would set and enforce the rules. In the other, the federal government would establish minimum standards but leave the enforcement to states and citizens who file civil.