24 February 2014

The True Costs of Coal, with Interest

It seems the day hardly passes without some new industrial disaster popping on to the headlines and disappearing just as quickly, all the while the media derides the environmentalists' anxiety. Often these accidents involve toxins leaking into water supplies, and those who pay attention heave a sigh that it happened in some poor place of little importance. The current disaster is a coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina from the coal ash waste impoundments at a retired power plant owned by Duke Energy, the largest energy producer in the nation. The USA produces about forty percent of its electricity from coal, burning about a billion tons of the mineral per year. Aside from being the largest single cause of climate change, the largest source of uranium, mercury and a host of other toxins released into the environment, coal combustion produces about 100 billion tons of ash waste per year, a toxic mess that comprises the largest waste stream in the country. Ironically, as regulations have forced cleaner emissions into the air, the ash has become even more toxic, as the toxins are mixed in with the solid wastes. There are about 600 ash waste dumps that we know of in the country, and many unknown.
High hazard coal ash waste storage ponds.
Ashville, NC

When the Clean Air and Water Acts were written, certain categories of waste were exempted from regulation, largely because the volumes involved were so great that proper treatment would have been prohibitively expensive. Thus, as a gift to the industries concerned, these "true costs" were effectively shifted to the public, specifically to future generations that would be handed these time bombs and forced to live with the consequences and pay to clean them up. One of those time bombs exploded 10 days ago when a rotting drainage pipe collapsed, releasing tremendous volumes of this minimally regulated toxic waste into a river in North Carolina, which happens to be the drinking water source for people downstream.
Power plants use tremendous amounts of fresh water for steam to spin turbines and for cooling; consequently, they are often built on rivers. Of the coal fired power plants in the USA, the median year of construction is 1966, and of the North Carolina plants for which data is available, the average produces 1,618,795 tons of ash a year. You can do the math, but that adds up to a lot of toxic sludge, and since it is even less regulated than your household garbage, utilities have just built tremendous unlined impoundments next to the power plants (and next to the river) and ignored the problem.
Houses under high hazard coal ash storage ponds
Belmont, NC

These lakes of sludge tend to collapse with distressing regularity, and five years ago, near Knoxville, TN, a major one burst, essentially filling the Emory River with 1.1 billion gallons of coal combustion waste, causing a cleanup bill of $1.1 billion dollars (who do you think will pay it?)
Coal combustion waste from power plant
Terrell, NC

The Kingston disaster focused national attention on the issue, prompting a nationwide evaluation, highlighting the fact that North Carolina is one of the states with the largest number of hazardous coal ash impoundments (31). So this is a known issue. Last year, environmental groups started three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke Energy to force them to clean up these ticking time bombs, but at the last second, the state stepped in and interceded on behalf of Duke, saving them a fortune in fines, and much embarrassment, and excused them from actually cleaning up the problem. Did we forget to mention that the NC governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 30 years and also received over a million dollars in "campaign contributions" from Duke Energy? We expect this kind of corruption in the third world, and, one assumes, in North Carolina.
Coal combustion waste from power plant
Walnut Cove, NC

Of course we all know that mercury, lead, uranium, and arsenic, all of which are concentrated in coal ash, are things we don't want to drink, but there is another, possibly even more insidious toxin therein that poisons our drinking water. Hexavalent chromium, which is very soluble in water, first came to public attention thanks to the efforts of Erin Brockovich, and in the last years it has been found in 31 of 35 municipal water supplies sampled in the country. It's one of those elements which proves more toxic with each new study. California has recently lowered its recommended safe limit to 0.02 parts per billion, while the current national limit of 100 ppb has been shown to cause cancer in 1.4 of 1000 people. Note that even before the spill, the Dan River Power Plant was known to be contaminating the groundwater with hexavalent chromium.
Dan River power plant with ash containment ponds
Eden, NC

With the help of Southwings and NRDC, we documented many of the high hazard coal ash sites in the state in 2010.

Meanwhile the EPA, which has been trying to regulate coal ash for years, has been stymied in its efforts by the friends of coal in government. Perhaps this is an ideal time for citizens to pick up the telephone and express their feelings to their elected representatives about keeping coal ash out of our water.
Dan River power plant with ash containment ponds
Eden, NC