12 March 2010

NC Coal Ash

12 March 2010

Mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, maybe uranium in the walls around you? Why should that bother you? Have you renovated in the last 10 years? Most brands of sheetrock use coal ash as a component, which is known to contain these byproducts. Somehow the coal industry has managed to keep coal ash designated as non-toxic waste, in spite of those toxins.

When I heard that the administration was close to considering the regulations for coal ash, I knew it was time to resume my photo project.

The logistics of doing an aerial shoot, especially in the winter, are tricky. The weather changes so fast, with so few windows of clear sunny days, that to plan a trip to a distant locale and book a private plane for the photo flight is a real crap shoot.

In this case, I made the decision from New York on Sunday to fly Monday in North Carolina. How can we thank the heroes at Southwings who mobilized a pilot for the project with just 24 hours notice? The seven North Carolina coal plants on the EP44 danger list make a dogleg line from Asheville to Greensboro, with the corner being right across the river from Charlotte Douglas Airport, one of the busiest in the country. It would be a miracle if air traffic control let us get to that one. As it is, FAA rules stipulate that there will be no “loitering” around power plants. Darwin, the pilot, suggested that I fly in and meet him in Ashville, and he would leave me in Greensboro after the last coal plant. Seemed pretty smart to me.

As usual, the weatherman was off the mark, and Ashville was cloudy with low ceilings.
I had a commercial flight back to NY at the other end of our journey, but we had some leeway to allow the possibility of waiting out the weather if there were any clear signs. There weren’t. In those cases, I always want to jump, in case it gets worse.

The Asheville coal plant is right next to the airport, which fortunately was not too busy. The lighting was pretty flat, with a good bit of snow on the ground. Amazingly, there were nice houses right under the ash ponds. The volume of crud in these things is staggering. If that earthen dyke bursts [there was nice steam coming off the water, which will someday perfectly illustrate a story on thermal pollution from power plants], that entire neighborhood will literally be buried by this poison-laden slurry. Good documentation images, but no “art.” And since we are forbidden to loiter, off we went to Charlotte. A pleasant surprise reared its smokestacks in our path: the Cliffside Expansion Project.

Cliffside is one of the largest carbon emitters of the US coal plants, and one of the worst producers of combustion waste. Since it is rurally located, it is not on the “EPA44” list, which is only plants with populations that would die if the coal ash ponds burst. Cliffside is on the list of groundwater polluters, as reported by Sue Sturgis, and at the center of a tremendous controversy around its expansion. As one of the most polluting coal plants in the country, a capacity increase is both a hazard to its neighbors and another jab towards our addiction to this dirty power source. As you might suspect, Dear Reader, the good lost again in this battle, and construction permits were issued. So, we zoomed in like a falcon after a mouse. And aside from the reportage shots that I told myself to get first on this trip (remember, we are trying to influence policy here) there were beautiful ash ponds with graduations of reds and blues to gold with seagulls flying over... Gorgeous. But alas, only two passes…
More to come…

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