'Clean' Coal and Two-Headed Fish: New Study Shows Toxic Ash Disposal Poisoning NC Lake

A new report from Wake Forest University concludes that coal ash waste from Duke Energy’s Sutton coal plant in Wilmington, NC, is elevating levels of selenium pollution in nearby Sutton Lake. The lake, prized by fishermen for its largemouth bass population, has been contaminated with high levels of the poisonous chemical, according to the study released today by Prof. Dennis Lemly, Research Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest. Selenium has been linked to deformities in fish — including two-headed trout — and can cause a condition known as selenosis if people consume high enough doses in their food or drinking water.

Several conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which joined the University in announcing the findings, filed suit against Duke Energy Progress, Inc. this summer, arguing that pollution from the Sutton plant's coal ash is "killing a regional fishing lake and is threatening a community’s drinking water."

The new report, which found that the coal ash pollution kills over 900,000 fish and deforms thousands more in Sutton Lake each year, is likely to bolster the plaintiffs' case in that suit.

The research also highlights one of the most fundamental problems with American energy policy: policy-makers and the public have been unwilling to recognize the true costs of the fuels we use to make electricity.

Fracking has allowed American drillers to tap previously inaccessible resources driving down the current selling price down dramatically since 2008, but the hidden and long-terms costs are starting to become clear where climate change, air and water pollution are concerned. The ongoing catastrophe at the Fukishima power plant hints at the risks and expense of nuclear power. And oil seems far cheaper until you add in the continuing cost of spills like the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

But for a particularly good example of these hidden costs, often externalized by the companies that incur them, consider coal ash. Much of the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal, the dirty byproduct of which is coal ash — the second largest waste stream country. The largest waste stream is the debris from coal mining itself. The cost of disposing all this highly toxic waste is rarely taken into account when the advocates of fossil fuels offer argue economics, in part because producers have often found ways to shift the costs from their books to the public.

There are two main ways that the waste from coal-fired power plants is typically handled. Both are expensive and dangerous. One is storing the waste in wastewater impoundments and landfills; the second is selling the ash to be re-used by other businesses.

Much of the over 140 million tons of coal ash produced by utilities across the U.S. in a given year is shipped to landfills or mixed with water and transported by pipeline to massive wastewater impoundments, where it is left to sit. As coal-fired power plants are increasingly shuttered – or as catastrophes strike – efforts to clean up some of these impoundment lakes are beginning. The cost, both in dollars and in human health, is striking.

Three recent lawsuits highlight just how costly the risky practice of storing coal ash in pits can be.

Recently, over 50 residents of Hancock County, West Virginia, sued coal company FirstEnergy over contamination from Little Blue Run, the country’s largest unlined wastewater impoundment. This sprawling wastewater dump was first built in 1974 on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border and it currently leaks so much arsenic-laced coal ash slurry that homes in the county have found their yards flooded and their foundations shifted.

Although clean-up efforts will begin in 2017, residents of that area will be negatively affected by the ash slurry for at least the next 100 years, the lawsuit alleges, and groundwater pollution might not peak until 50 to 70 years from now. FirstEnergy currently projects that cleanup will cost the company more than $133 million.

But their current plan cuts a lot of corners. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection described a string of over 160 deficiencies in that plan, many of them major, in a 29-page letter to FirstEnergy sent October 3rd. And the $133 million price tag leaves out the costs currently borne by those living in the area, which the lawsuit aims to recoup.

For example, Pennsylvania regulators estimate that if the dam dividing Little Blue Run from the Ohio River were to give way, as many as 50,000 lives could be lost — a concern which is partly responsible for the region’s plunging property values, residents allege.

Another lawsuit, filed in September by the Southern Environmental Law Center, alleges that coal giant Duke Energy is dragging its heels on cleaning up coal ash impoundments as it shuts down coal-fired power plants across the state. State regulators have also sued Duke over a bevy of coal-ash tied groundwater contaminants like arsenic and lead from the Sutton Plant that they concluded have put the drinking water for many residents of Chapel Hill, NC, at risk, saying the ash “poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of the State of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the State.” 

Local public utilities expect to contribute $472,000 to a new water line to bring clean drinking water to people whose supplies were contaminated by coal ash.

“There is no reason that the local community should be paying almost half a million dollars to make up for Duke’s illegal pollution,” said  Kemp Burdette, a representative of Cape Fear Riverkeeper which joined the SELC in the suit. “Duke should pay the full cost and should clean up its pollution.”

Yet another recent lawsuit highlights some of the costs to human health that can emerge when pits fail. In 2008, a burst wastewater impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant near Knoxville, TN, spewed 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and onto nearby land. The TVA contends that the mercury, asbestos and arsenic-laden sludge is harmless. However, over two dozen workers hired as part of the $1.2 billion clean-up effort sued the one of the contractors involved this summer for damages related to health issues they developed after handling the ash, including respiratory problems, heart conditions and rashes. Workers say their requests for protective equipment were turned down by bosses, and at one point, they were told that “you could drink fly ash daily and suffer no adverse health effects."

Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency show that coal ash contains a range of dangerous substances and radioactive materials, though the industry has long argued that levels were so low that coal ash should be viewed as comparable to backyard dirt. But in 2009, improved EPA testing methods showed that coal ash in fact exceeded hazardous waste thresholds. In 2010, the EPA announced that they were considering classifying coal ash as hazardous waste — but that rule is still under consideration and the coal industry has lobbied hard to water down rules and prevent their passage.

The hazards of handling the waste make the alternative to storing ash in pits all the more alarming. For years, coal companies have been selling their waste for re-use. They even cast this process as a form of “recycling.” The Obama administration refers to the handling of the ash in this fashion as “beneficial use”.

Some of the coal ash is sold as construction fill, where it is used to build highway embankments or building foundations (check out this 2010 60 Minutes program on the consequences of using coal as as fill in part of a golf-course).

But it’s also found in a striking array of household goods – from drywall to bowling balls to carpets, and even lipstick. An investigation by DeSmog found that cities or towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia, Illinois, and Colorado have sprayed the toxic waste on roads to combat winter ice.

Until 2010, the EPA actively promoted the re-use of coal ash in other products through its Coal Combustion Products Partnership, helping to create an $11 billion industry in re-using the ash. In 2011, a scathing report by the EPA’s own internal watchdog, the Inspector General’s office, faulted the EPA for failing to complete a single safety review on over 50 million tons of coal ash sold in the U.S. each year.

That year, EPA announced it would conduct risk assessments – but since then, it’s been radio silence from the agency and environmental advocates say they suspect the scope of the assessments has been narrowed and that the agency is dragging its heels on completing its research. The EPA has yet to announce a timeline for finalizing its rules.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, the health risks associated with the ash are likely to get more severe. One of the unintended consequences of air regulation at coal-fired power plants, designed to prevent mercury from entering the atmosphere, is that the coal ash produced after EPA's air regulations kick in will be laced with even higher levels of toxic solid waste.

If American energy policy is going to be rational, the costs associated with disposing the waste produced by each fuel must be taken into account. And in that respect, renewable energy sources like wind and solar looks far more attractive than fossil fuel.

“If coal power generators had to responsibly handle their wastes,” said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch, “coal would not be so much cheaper than solar and other renewable power sources.”

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