Sep. 29, 2018

Hurricane Florence damages coal ash retaining pond

Coal ash is one of the most-generated forms of industrial waste in the country. According to the American Coal Ash Association, about 110 million tons are generated each year. About half of all coal ash produced in the United States is recycled into construction materials such as concrete or wallboard; it makes these materials stronger. However, that leaves about 50 million tons of coal ash that need to be disposed of every year. According to the EPA, there are over 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, many of them constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before any sort of regulations.

As one of his first major acts as acting director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed and finalized new standards overseeing coal ash, the leftover waste created by power plants that burn coal. The new rules are a revision of 2015 regulations that were put into place by the Obama administration after two significant industrial coal ash spills. Environmental advocates said the new rules are a gift to industry.

Coal combustion waste sites are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, creeks, or rivers. These could easily have been prevented with sensible safeguards such as phasing out leak-prone ash ponds and requiring the use of synthetic liners and leachate collection systems. Yet, incredibly, ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to federal regulations that require these simple safeguards.

Depending on where the coal was mined, coal ash typically contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc. How dangerous is coal ash to humans? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer or other diseases. If you live near an unlined wet ash pond (surface impoundment) and you get your drinking water from a well, you may have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water. If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.

On Friday (9/21/18) floodwaters from Florence breached a dam that contains a man-made lake connected to a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina, causing coal ash to flow into the nearby Cape Fear River. The company said in a news release that workers were moving “large stones and other materials” to help deal with fissures in the dams. (Similarly to the oil company’s primitive containment barriers, one wonders why these billion dollar companies cannot develop better risk management and mitigation for disasters- large stones??) Duke Energy estimated last weekend that the storm had washed away more than 2,000 cubic yards of coal waste — enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks.

Pete Harrison, a staff attorney at the environmental law firm Earthjustice, went to the site of the spill Friday and traveled on the Cape Fear River by boat along with a member of the clean-water advocacy group Waterkeeper Alliance. He said that water from Lake Sutton was “pouring out” into the river at several points. Harrison said he and his colleagues saw plumes of water containing coal ash particles, some floating on the surface and some underneath. “These swirling plumes went on for miles, and we watched them form as they poured out of the lake.”

This the ‘clean coal’ industry that the current administration touts and works diligently to deregulate. There are safer, sustainable ways to produce electricity that have a much lower impact on the quality of our environment. Clean energy holds the possibility of producing more jobs than the coal industry if we had the political will to stand up to the coal and petro-chemical corporations/lobbyists/political campaign contributors. 

Check out the maps of coal ash in the United States. Do you live near a coal ash site? (map of contaminated ash sites)   (interesting map of coal ash disposal sites)