|Coal ash contamination is an issue that cannot be denied.|
It could be that our dependence on fossil fuels has gone so far, and is so ingrained in our economy that we are on the verge of having to accept whatever pollution the industries that use coal, oil and natural gas want to create.
According to EHS, members of the the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy recently approved an amendment to the subtitle D of the Solid Waste Disposal Act. It is currently called the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act. While CRRMA strengthens states' authority to regulate the coal ash, they are at liberty to also do nothing. My reading of the Act shows it to be nothing more than a list of what states can do, if they want to do anything at all about managing the coal ash that is dumped on their soils and into their landfills. Amazingly, those states that elect to manage coal ash waste simply have to submit a certification that their program meets the specifications outlined in subsection (c) of the Solid Waste Disposal Act. Many people wonder if the states have the money and interest in ensuring utility companies are following the rules since they only marginally regulate their practices today.
In the meantime, the EPA has been taking comments and holding public hearings on two proposed rules, one of which would create the first ever national regulation on coal ash disposal, or, as it is otherwise called, coal combustion residues.
What is Coal Ash Contamination?
Coal ash dumps across the country are volatile enough to meet the "open dumping" criteria of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) because they have contamination of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, fluoride, lead, mercury and selenium. The Environmental Integrity Project monitored groundwater contamination in 33 states where coal ash is being dumped and found levels of these contaminants that would normally require cleanup or closure of those sites.
According to a New York Times article there are more than 1,300 coal ash dumps across the country. Coal ash is the byproduct of keeping pollutants out of the air. It used to be they went up the power-generating-station smokestack. But that was creating massive airborne contamination. So, scrubbers were added to the stacks and now when they are cleaned the residue has to be dumped somewhere. The contaminants from coal ash leach into the ground and begin to affect the smaller species of the earth first. According to the Times article, fish, bird and frog populations are decimated and deformities begin appearing in the youngest of the animal world.
According to the EPA, state regulation is not consistent across all states. For example, 36 percent of states do not have minimum liner requirements for landfill disposal of coal ash, and 67 percent do not have liner requirements for coal ash that is impounded on the land's surface. Liners are not used because of their costs, however the current science says they are the best way to keep the volatile substances in the ash, when it is stored wet, from getting into the groundwater. Ultimately, either rule if enacted would cause utilities to move to dry storage of coal ash which would be safer.
But there are even larger questions to be answered here. Should some states and their populations bear the contamination burden more than others? According to this report more than half of the coal ash dump sites considered to be high hazard are in the south, with North Carolina having the greatest number at 12. Other southern states with high hazard coal ash dumps include West Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia. Arizona has the second highest number with 9. Illinois, Indiana, Montana and Pennsylvania round out the high risk states.
As usual, proponents of allowing the pollution to continue cite jobs and money as the reasons coal ash dumping should continue to go unregulated. You have to wonder when we will learn how to prioritize environmental quality based on something other than economics. Is it possible there are things that are more important than money? And if so, could we get creative enough to find ways to reduce environmental damage while still making sure people have what they need?