Nothing Goes Away

I was forwarded an article from the Des Moines Register this morning, that got me fired up–anger, disbelief, dismay.

The article is about disposal of coal plant waste, and how the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is suspending a new rule that would force coal-fired power plants to dispose of the heavily contaminated waste in regulated, lined landfills, rather than simply dumping the refuse into old quarries and ravines, allowing the leachate to contaminate soil and groundwater with heavy metals and other carcinogens.

The state drafted the new liner and monitoring requirements last summer because monitors at some utilities’ permitted coal-ash disposal areas detected metals in groundwater nearby, said Chad Stobbe, an environmental specialist coordinating the rule debate. Studies in North Dakota and Indiana documented similar pollution.

That led the Resources Department to believe pollution also would be found around unlined quarries and ravines, an assumption various companies contested, Stobbe said.

Companies that use coal ash to fill old rock quarries and the like protested the potential cost of installing a landfill-style liner and monitoring wells at the sites, as the state had proposed, Stobbe said. [Perry Beeman. “New coal ash rules put on hold” 1-1-2009]

It seems unbelievable to me that these companies would claim their coal ash is somehow cleaner and less prone to pollute than other coal ash in the same and other states. But the crux of the argument seems to lie more in the cost of installing liners and monitoring wells.

David Wilson, senior environmental engineer for Elk Run Energy Associates, which has proposed a coal-fired power plant in Waterloo, wrote in a letter to the DNR that the state has failed to adequately analyze the cost to consumers of forcing companies to take the materials to landfills rather than quarries and the like.

I wonder why a state regulatory agency would see this as a legitimate argument against safeguarding the natural resources they are supposed to be protecting for us. I wonder why anyone would think, “oh, it costs too much to make them dispose of the mess safely–let’s just allow them to poison our soil and water.”  Is carcinogen-laden water a good trade for cheap power?

The company’s environmental engineer seems to be pulling the old political trick of warning state agencies that if they force the power companies and coal ash disposal companies to be safe, they’re going to pass the additional costs on to the consumers and that might cost the politicians and their appointees popular support and their jobs come the next election.

But my favorite part of the article is this maddening bit, about the “true health risk”:

…Iowa regulators agreed to postpone action on their new rules after companies that handle ash waste questioned the true health risk and objected to potential costs associated with the changes that they said would be passed on to consumers.[…]

Coal ash typically contains a variety of heavy metals that can cause cancer, neurological and developmental problems, and other illnesses. The pollutants include arsenic, lead, mercury and boron, which are concentrated at levels in the ash that are far above the amount found in coal.

Because–you know–companies that dispose of coal ash waste are the best judge of the true health risk of the material.  And if they say all that arsenic, mercury, lead, and boron is nothing to be concerned about–well, those Iowa regulators should just step out of the way, right?

I’d like to see the politicians and state agencies get some cajones and stop letting corporations get their way in the name of profits for un-named and un-blamed stockholders.  I’d like to see all a company’s executives and stockholders held accountable for the environmental degradation they create in the process of making those profits.

Nothing goes away.  The coal that is burned for the power we use creates waste, and that waste is toxic.  We all take part in that creation of toxic waste every time we switch on a light, plug in our computers, nudge the thermostat up a notch.  We are tied into the cycle, all of us, that transforms matter into energy.  That’s what we do as living, breathing, working, eating, excreting creatures.

But we make a big mistake when we choose a few extra dollars in our pockets over corporate accountability and clean soil to grow food in and clean water to drink.  We make a big mistake when we toss something in the trash (or in an old quarry or ravine) and think we’ve thrown it away.

There is no “away.”

It’s not a comfort to me to think that the executive and politicians and stockholders are going to be in the same boat as we are–drinking the same arsenic-tainted water, grieving over their sick children and spouses just like we do.

Some people say (as those who have been fighting the Hyperion oil refinery here have said), “they’ll just take their profits and move someplace else that hasn’t been degraded.”  I’m wondering how many places like that are left, and how successful they’ll be in adopting their former opposition’s arguments against the degraders there.

Maybe it would be better to stop this degradation here and now, and raise hell with the politicians and corporations–make clear what it is we truly value–not just a few bucks off our energy bills, but clean air, clean soil, clean water.

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4 responses

  1. My grandfather, a hardworking Tennessee mountain man, contracted black lung disease during the years he worked for a coal company. The trade-off for cheap energy should never be human health or a poisoned environment. Thanks for raising the voice of reason.

  2. with regards to Hyperion, if you think they are your friend and will spare no expense to ensure that their 200 megawatt coal fired power plant will not pollute you’ve got something other than your head stuck in the sand. there is an old rule in the oil business..build it as cheap as possible for as long as possible. besides, with the price of oil at $35, the pipeline shutting down, the tar sands shutting down and no venture capital, Hyperion is doomed anyway, but i’m here to tell you they are not your friend.

  3. The coal ash disposal issue is a national problem that the U.S. EPA has refused to deal with for over 20 years because the coal industry is so powerful. There’s some commentary on it in this Christian Science Monitor article.

    BTW, there’s new evidence of water contamination from the giant Tennessee coal-ash disaster that’s still unfolding. Citizens sampled the water themselves and got a state university to analyze it. According to this New York Times article, some early results released by the government didn’t show a contamination problem, but they were from samples taken “just after the spill at a spot six miles away and upstream of the ash flow.”

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