Last year, the EIP releasedseveral reports showing that drinking water near coal ash disposal sites in states across America contained dangerous levels of heavy metals and other toxins, including arsenic. In total, last year’s report revealed 53 sites in the United States where coal ash had polluted drinking water supplies.
The new EIP report resulted from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the EPA, which revealed that 49 different coal-fired power plants acknowledged that their own testing showed that groundwater pollution around their disposal sites far exceeded the federally acceptable levels. Among the chemicals reported to exceed federal standards at the coal-fired plants’ disposal sites are:
Most children already have a fear of coal – after all, they are threatened during childhood that if they misbehave, Santa Claus will leave them nothing but a lump of coal in their stocking. The older members of society, too, have plenty of reasons to fear coal as an energy source. Burning it pollutes our air and water and threatens our health. Mining it can be deadly for workers. And the entire life cycle of coal threatens the global climate.
When it comes to coal, two major issues dominated the environmental news front this year in particular: Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) and coal ash. While MTR has become an issue that most people are familiar with, the threats posed by coal ash remain largely under-reported (stay tuned for more on that in 2012).
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR) entails blowing the tops off of entire mountains in order to extract the coal seems within. The method became popular when coal companies realized that they could produce two and a half times as much coal per worker hour by removing the tops of mountains, rather than traditional coal mining methods. As a result, some states have reduced the number of coal workers by as much as 60%, while output and profits have remained steady.
In addition to the obvious loss of mountains, the practice is riddled with environmental dangers. In order to extract the coal, the areas around the mountain are clear-cut, destroying wildlife habitat and leading to soil erosion. The waste products from the coal extraction also leak into water supplies, contaminating them with mercury, lead, sulfur, and other dangers chemicals. It is estimated that by the end of 2012, a staggering 2,200 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains will have been destroyed thanks to mountaintop removal mining.
On Monday, a bluff surrounding a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based power plant collapsed, sending a cascade of debris and coal ash waste from the power plant into Lake Michigan. No injuries were reported by We Energies, the company who owns the power plant, but the environmental assessment will likely be less optimistic. We Energies, a subsidiary of Wisconsin Energy Corporation (NYSE: WEC), has confirmed that the debris that made it into the river likely contained coal ash.
As of Monday afternoon, a “fuel sheen” appeared on the surface of Lake Michigan as a result of the bluff collapse. Cleanup crews from Clean Harbor were contracted by We Energies to help contain the spread of the sheen, and will be deploying about 1,500 feet of boom to help contain the waste on the surface. Shortly after the accident, residents living up to a mile away from the site along the lake were already reporting debris washing onshore.
As we have reportedextensively in the past, coal ash contains countless toxic substances, including mercury, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, and cadmium. It has also been reported to be more radioactive as nuclear waste. In spite of these findings, the EPA has yet to issue any firm stance on whether or not coal ash will be regulated as a “toxic waste,” partly due to the fact that the coal industry has unleashed a cadre of lobbyists to Washington to fight to protect their coal ash interests.
The EPA’s delay in issuing a ruling on coal ash has allowed the Republican-controlled Congress to gain the upper hand on the issue. In early fall 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would prohibit the EPA from regulating coal ash, and preventing them from classifying the substance as “hazardous.” Instead of EPA regulations, the bill would allow states to issue their own standards on coal ash and prevent any federal standards.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted this week to allow a new bill on the regulation of coal ash to be considered for a full House vote. The bill, known as The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, would prevent the E.P.A. from classifying coal ash (or fly ash) as a toxic substance, and instead would allow individual states to make their own rules regarding the storage and re-use of coal ash waste.
The bill passed the committee by a vote of 35 – 12, with all Committee Republicans and six Democrats voting in favor of the bill. The E.P.A. ruled in 2000 that coal ash was not a hazardous substance, but proposed a rule last summer that would change the classification to “hazardous.” The agency is still debating which rule will stand, and announced recently that the decision will not be made this year.
The bill was put forward by freshman Republican David McKinley from West Virginia. West Virginia is one of the country’s leading producers of both coal and coal waste. Under the guise of “saving jobs,” McKinley introduced the bill earlier this year. But a look beyond the surface reveals McKinley’s true intentions for putting forth the legislation.
Republican Representative David McKinley from West Virginia has proposed a bill that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating toxic coal ash. The EPA has not yet made a decision on whether or not to classify coal ash as toxic, but reports show that the substance poses significant risks to human health.
McKinley is the sponsor of HR 1391, formally known as Recycling Coal Combustion Residuals Accessibility Act of 2011, a bill that would strip the EPA of their ability to exempt toxic coal ash from the EPA’s “Subtitle C” classification. Subtitle C lays out the guidelines that the agency follows in order to regulate toxic substances from “the cradle to the grave,” meaning that they provide oversight throughout the cycle of any form of hazardous waste. It also gives the agency the authority to conduct periodic inspections of plants producing hazardous wastes, as well as providing states and cities with training programs in how to manage these wastes.
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.