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Potential disasters pimpling the whole country

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.

Comments

  1. says

    It’s astonishing how complacent we are. If civilization is to survive, most of that coal has to stay in the ground, where it belongs. It’s really that stark a choice, and we just won’t face up to it.

  2. says

    This kind of thing is why environmental justice is a big part of social justice (and one that gets not nearly enough attention, on my view). Impoverished areas inhabited by PoCs are huge pollution sinks all over the U.S., from being targeted as locations for legal landfills and waste dumps, illegal dumping that the authorities won’t do anything about, locations near shipping terminals and freeways where the diesel fumes belch night and day, etc. It’s fucking criminal is what it is.

  3. says

    Seconding Dailillama. Environmental justice is at the nexus of so many social justice issues: lead paint exposure, asthma rates, birth defects, etc. all have profound ripple effects on health and education, and not just on kids but entire communities. I wish it got more high profile exposure than it does. Thanks for signal boosting this issue, PZ.

  4. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    Where I grew up, about half of buildings were built of what was termed “fly ash cement.”

    What is this?

    Cement that was made using the waste byproducts of coal burning.

    I suppose some of the coal ash cannot be so used and some waste remains inevitable, but I’m struck by how “let’s build something useful” is filed far below “let’s dump it on poor black people.”

  5. twas brillig (stevem) says

    I hate to be “That Guy”; but what I was taught is that burning coal is orders of magnitude more radioactive than nuclear reactors. Still, disregarding that pollutant; how can ANYONE think that releasing, what has been stored for millions of years, that took millions to make, in just a few years would not have a global effect? Nevermind the CO2, just think of it as pure energy. Over 1 billion years, plants stored millions of BTU’s in coal deposits for millions of years. And you want to just put all that energy back in the air in a year? Won’t all that energy heat the air? Oh, you want to use that energy to build stuff? Let me introduce you to Thermodynamics. Energy can only be released, never destroyed, using it here just puts it there, stored energy stays cold, release it and EVERYTHING gets hotter.

    That’s why I think “clean coal” is an oxymoron. “Clean” only refers to the ash particles they prevent, but CO2 and Heat is really the “dirty” part of “clean coal”.

    Back to topic: This sounds like a similar story from the early 70’s, when some huge pond of coal sludge (mining detritus or something related to coal mining) broke the pond and flowed over some mining town and poisoned everybody there. I can’t remember the details, I was too young and too horrified by the news :-(

  6. says

    Regarding environmental justice, few people know that it is extremely dangerous to live near a major highway. Ultrafine particles — which are found in elevated concentrations only within 300-400 meters of the highway — are among the leading preventable causes of death in the world. They raise the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and cancer. And where do they put low income housing and housing projects? Next to the highway, where land is cheap and nobody wants to live. BTW, if there’s a bike path or a hiking or running trail or a playground near a highway where you live, DO NOT USE IT!

  7. Sarahface, who is trying to break the lurking habit says

    The EPA is reluctant to classify something that’s full of heavy metals and other nasty things as hazardous?
    What even?

    [And then I turn to google, and find this, which suggests that they’re trying to decide (and have been since at least 2010) whether to classify coal residues (which covers this situation, as far as I can tell?) under Subtitle C (Hazardous Waste, which requires controls from ‘cradle to grave’, i.e. the entire lifetime of the residues) or under Subtitle D (Solid Non-hazardous Waste, which “encourages states to develop comprehensive plans to manage nonhazardous industrial solid waste and municipal solid waste, sets criteria for municipal solid waste landfills and other solid waste disposal facilities, and prohibits the open dumping of solid waste.” Which, y’know, fine for most things, if the ‘encouragement’ gets results, but not great for things that, y’know, contain heavy metals?)
    [from: http://www.epa.gov/osw/laws-regs/rcrahistory.htm

    Holy overuse of brackets, Batman…

  8. says

    Well, you can look on the really bright side PZ – increased efficiency means they can take what ever coal ash is left and pump it from the ponds it kept in, into the nearest creek, and if they start fracking any where nearby, there will be plenty of “The Simpsons” style waste dumps, i.e. people using abandoned buildings, or the waste dumps of poor people, or Native Americans, as storage for radium filled filters. See, more efficiency means its easier to hide the stuff that you *do* pollute with. (I am, quite frankly, very surprised this isn’t actually a selling point, among certain people in the energy industry….)

    Some of the crap I have found out, just in the last few weeks…. Gah!

  9. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    Twas Brillig:

    That was Buffalo Creek, down on the Virginia/West Virginia border. That disaster, along with the Estes Park, CO, flood, were the impetus in the Federal Government cracking down on private dams — mandatory inspections and engineers had to be involved. Of course, like all regulations designed to prevent disasters, when they work, they are their own worst enemy. For the last twenty years, mining and power companies have been seeking (successfully) to weaken the rules surrounding impoundment dams because, well hell, look at their (almost) sterling record. Since that evil regulation was put in place, there have only been a very few failures and there were no fatalities so we gotta get rid of those profit-killing regulations because we can regulate ourselves better than the government and we’ll create JOBS!

  10. says

    Snort.. Yeah.. Why not extend that to building codes. “We don’t need all those stinking regulations on how you are *required* to reinforce buildings. Since the regulations where put in place only a few have ever fallen down, so contractors can obviously police themselves!” Of course, we will, in saying this, ignore how nearly all the ones that did fall down where a result of people ***not*** following the code, as well as the rather large number of shitty, and/or fake contractors out there, even with the laws in place. I am sure letting people build shit how ever they want, and the inspectors not being allowed to tell them that its completely half assed, shitty, work, which fails to match code, would create lots of new job opportunities, right?

    I am not sure which is more irritating, that some of these clowns might actually think the above was a “sound idea”, or that they would argue that, “Well, no, that is entirely different!!!”

  11. markr1957 says

    Stevem – are you referring to the Aberfan disaster from 1966? 116 school children and 28 teachers died when the slag heap from the local mine in Wales slid down the mountain after torrential rain, and buried an entire school just as classes started one October morning. Coal by products are lethal in so many different ways.

  12. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    Kagehi:

    Why not extend that to building codes.

    The fight to have any enforceable codes when it comes to house trailers is still being fought. And, guess what? The people with money, not the people who live in house trailers, are winning.

    Of course, we will, in saying this, ignore how nearly all the ones that did fall down where a result of people ***not*** following the code, as well as the rather large number of shitty, and/or fake contractors out there, even with the laws in place.

    Well, that is an example of how bad government is. If someone cheats the rules, and the government inspectors (both of them) don’t catch it, then that means government has failed and we need to let the free market and the contractors police themselves because they will be so much better than those evil government bureaucrats.

  13. says

    PZ:

    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.

    It doesn’t make me happy, being in ND. And everything has gone to absolute hell here, with the frakking. ND has gone oil happy, and it’s a fucking mess.

  14. twas brillig (stevem) says

    re @11:

    I think not. I think ogvorbis@9 got the disaster I was thinking of. They may have referenced Aberfan during the Buffalo Creek disaster [Estes Park rings a bell also ;-( ]. But Wales would be too far over ‘the pond’ for news here, WV is much closer and newsworthy. But I was so young, for both disasters, my memory is very faint with just a hint of what I heard. Thanks both of you for the refreshers. Maybe those are what made me so anti-coal.

  15. frankensteinmonster says

    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.


    Too bad that the next closest place not near the CO2 those monsters are spewing, is not Minnesota but LEO. Low Earth Orbit.

  16. ck says

    Well, the climate change denialist trolls must be on vacation or something. This post about environmentalism has been up for hours without someone chiming in to accuse PZ of being a hypocrite for not abandoning all modern technology that may run on coal-generated power.

  17. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    Onamission5:

    See, if there were no regulations, Duke Energy would never have deliberately dumped the ash.

  18. says

    Over 1 billion years, plants stored millions of BTU’s in coal deposits for millions of years. And you want to just put all that energy back in the air in a year? Won’t all that energy heat the air?

    The effect of waste heat is insignificant given what the sun bathes us with. Moreover, it can’t have a long-term effect. The Earth over the long-term is in radiative balance, with the amount of energy coming from the sun balanced out by the amount being radiated out into space. Even if adding some extra heat causes temperatures to go up temporarily, this would just cause an increase in outgoing radiation until temperatures dropped back to equilibrium.

    What GHGs do is they increase the equilibrium temperature by absorbing some of the outgoing radiation and sending it back down. This means Earth has to radiate more to achieve balance, ergo temperatures have to be higher. Even if you could magically transport a bunch of that heat away, the Earth still has to keep warming until the new equilibrium temperature is reached.

  19. weatherwax says

    #10 Kagehi: Do you remember the Oakland Hills Fire in northern California back in ’91? Twenty five people died and hundreds of homes were lost. It was actually the 3rd or 4th time that area had burned out with devastating results.

    Every time Oakland would enact stricter building codes. No wood roofs and use of more resistant building materials in general, wider streets, more than one way out, keep your brush cleared, etc.

    Every time people moaned about how unfairly difficult the new rules were, and every time the rules got repealed.

  20. rorschach says

    Australians are particularly dumb and shortsighted in this regard. Not only is the new government pushing coal power, new plants are being built and the world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is being used to dump dredge waste in, but they are also delisting ancient rain forests in Tasmania, and expanding roads, with no regard whatsoever given to the expansion of our ailing public transport. The monkeys at Melbourne Zoo would do better.

    Drill baby drill.

  21. madscientist says

    Using dams to contain all sorts of sludge ponds is an ancient mining technique which probably needs to be changed. Every year there are old mine tailings dams across the USA (and the rest of the world too) that collapse. I think the Kingston disaster is a typical case of what happens when management for a slightly increased profit overrides any technical considerations.

    There are criteria to be met for a coal sludge to be classified as ‘hazardous waste’ vs ‘landfill waste’. If the stuff in the ponds didn’t classify as ‘hazardous’ that’s unfortunate – but such large catastrophes can be prevented in the future by limiting the amount that can be stored on site at any one time (similar to what’s done with spent nuclear fuel). Now there’s a nice piece of politics – the sludge is not a ‘hazardous waste’ even though it’s usually quite alkaline and would kill things. The fine clay particles are also great at killing all those fishes and things in the rivers. The heavy metals, dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a much smaller concern unless the stuff wasn’t disposed of appropriately and is leaching into a potable water source.

  22. shadow says

    I just read on truthout.org that the CEO of ExxonMobile was upset that there is a LARGE water tower ‘ruining his view’ that is used to supply water for fracking.

    Instant karma?

  23. twosheds1 says

    I’m reminded of the brief time I lived in East Liverpool, Ohio, in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant upriver in PA. They pumped the sludge produced by cleaning the coal smoke to a lake they created that straddles the PA/WV line. When I saw it it was an unearthly turquoise, but it has since mellowed in color a bit. It’s called Little Blue Run Lake if you want to look it up. The dam holding all the sludge in is maybe 1000 feet from the Ohio River, right across from East Liverpool’s African-American community, where coincidentally, a hazardous waste incinerator is located, 200 feet from an elementary school.