Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Poison Ponds Everywhere & No One Minding The Store

Thanks, “clean coal”! Apparently the clean coal propagandists and their de-regulating, anti-environmental minions in Washington have left hundreds of potential coal sludge disasters all across the country. Count me not shocked.

Reports the New York Times on today’s front page:
The coal ash pond that ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of East Tennessee last month was only one of more than 1,300 similar dumps across the United States — most of them unregulated and unmonitored — that contain billions more gallons of fly ash and other byproducts of burning coal.

Like the one in Tennessee, most of these dumps, which reach up to 1,500 acres, contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Yet they are not subject to any federal regulation, which experts say could have prevented the spill, and there is little monitoring of their effects on the surrounding environment.

In fact, coal ash is used throughout the country for construction fill, mine reclamation and other “beneficial uses.” In 2007, according to a coal industry estimate, 50 tons of fly ash even went to agricultural uses, like improving soil’s ability to hold water, despite a 1999 E.P.A. warning about high levels of arsenic. The industry has promoted the reuse of coal combustion products because of the growing amount of them being produced each year — 131 million tons in 2007, up from less than 90 million tons in 1990.

I don’t understand why the EPA keeps issuing all of these warnings about the dangerous toxicity of coal ash, and these warnings are ignored or downplayed in the face of industry and political pressure.

Look, people, this isn’t hard. Facts are facts, science is science. If the science shows dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste is bad for the soil, air and water that people use, then quit doing it. And by all means, don’t peddle this toxic sludge as some kind of new miracle fertilizer. That’s the kind of shit they pull in China.

Now we get to the meat of the matter:

The amount of coal ash has ballooned in part because of increased demand for electricity, but more because air pollution controls have improved. Contaminants and waste products that once spewed through the coal plants’ smokestacks are increasingly captured in the form of solid waste, held in huge piles in 46 states, near cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., and on the shores of Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
I’ve said this from day one: “clean coal” is a farce. You can put scrubbers on smokestacks, but that just means the waste comes in a different form. You cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics. You do not “create” energy, you can only change its form, and when you do that there is always, always, always a waste product. Whether you change that waste product from belching smoke and acid rain to toxic sludge, it’s still a hazard and still needs to be handled carefully.

This is environmental science 101.

Something else that bears remembering is that coal ash is radioactive. I’d love to know why we are spreading this stuff around on agricultural fields and construction sites.

Someone at the EPA needs to be doing their job and digging into this stuff. Clearly the EPA bows too easily to political and industry pressure in general. The Bush years have been the worst as far as gutting the EPA is concerned, but this stuff has gone on in other administrations, too.

We need a huge sea change in this country, one which puts the health and well-being of people over the profits of industry, one which acts like responisble adults not greedy children who think they can eat ice cream and cupcakes and not feel sick afterwards.

It's time to grow up, America.