The City of Muscatine mixes coal ash with its salt, which increases traction and melting on the roads, and a lower cost to city taxpayers.
The coal ash comes from Muscatine Power and Water's coal fired electric plant. Like any fire, when you burn coal, some of the material gets left behind. Some of the bottom ash at the plant is given to the city to spread on its streets.
The EPA says coal ash contains pollutants such as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. Those are toxic chemicals, some of which cause cancer.
Iowa and Illinois allow coal ash to be spread onto city streets.
"I know that counties, different schools that I've attended wish that they had access to it," Muscatine streets supervisor Randy Howell said.
Howell has worked in the public works department for 32 years. He says coal ash has always been used to clear snow and ice.
"Cinders have been used as long as I've been here," Howell said. "It's been a tool that we've had when it gets really, really cold. They work well for us."
The city gets it free of charge from the power plant. Howell says they mix it with the road salt to cut down their salt bill. The city estimates it saves $60,000 a year on salt costs.
"We used to use sand," Howell said. "The problem with the sand is that it gets frozen up so hard we can't use it."
Iowa state law allows coal ash to be used on roads. Muscatine Power and Water has to test it periodically to ensure the leftover chemicals are at legal levels. A company spokesperson could not meet with us on camera but did provide us a test report from 2011 for one of the coal ash products. It shows all the chemicals except one, beryllium, tested under the legal limit. The spokesperson says the company markets 80% of its coal ash for other uses. That helps keep the company ash landfill from filling up and the city is glad to take its share.
"They're sharp and they cut into the snow pack," Howell said. "They help break it up for us."
Howell says the ash is also light enough that it does not clog storm sewers like sand does. The water just carries it away to the river.
The EPA says coal ash is exempt from its waste management rules right now, although it has proposed new rules to regulate ash storage. It wants to finish the rule making process by the end of the year.
The EPA says ash can be bad for rivers, a lot of it can smother living things in the water and on the river bottom. However, Howell says the city's only had one complaint.
"The only thing we've ever had issues with was phone calls, that was like, we're tracking it in our house," Howell said. "Honestly, that's really the only complaint we've ever gotten."
Whether coal ash will be able to be used in the future depends on whatever rule the EPA finalizes.