Your must-read article for the day is When the Rivers Run Black, the story of the Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill. The walls of a gigantic reservoir pond containing toxic waste produced by a coal-fired power plant ruptured, pouring 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the environment. It was the largest industrial accident in US history.
I was reading it and thinking about where my power is coming from — about half of Minnesota power comes from coal plants — and feeling grateful that none of those plants are anywhere near me. We like it when North Dakota builds their monster coal-burning plants over there in their weaker regulatory environment, and we just reap the benefits of cheaper electrical power over here. And then I read about the Kingston cleanup, and what they had to do with all the slimy sludge.
For months, train cars lined up to be loaded with sludge dredged from the river. The sludge was then carted down to Uniontown, Alabama, a mostly poor, mostly black county, where an enterprising commissioner decided that taking the waste was an economic opportunity. The county ended up taking about 4 million tons of it and dumped it in a landfill—for the price of just $4 million.
It is not unusual that a place like Uniontown ended up with the Kingston waste: Coal ash is almost always dumped in communities that don’t have the political or financial muscle to reject becoming other communities’ trashcans. According to a 2012 report, of the nearly six million Americans who live within three miles of a coal-fired power plant, 39 percent are minority, and the average per capita income is $18,400.
Damn. I am a privileged person, all right.
Fortunately, Minnesota is improving energy efficiency and regulating power plants more, so at least we’re slowly getting better. Although I notice now something in that happy report that was also discussed in the Kingston article: all that’s getting mentioned is emissions, not the accumulating solid waste from the plants. That waste is loaded with heavy metal poisons, but the EPA is dragging its heels, reluctant to even classify it as hazardous.