Coal – for thousands of years, humans have found it difficult to live without this cheap and combustible sedimentary rock. They've burned it to stay warm and for transportation, and in recent decades, to produce much of the electricity on which modern society depends. But, of course, even from the beginning, people knew they were dealing with a nasty and harmful substance.
Not only has the stuff always been incredibly dangerous to unearth (both to humans and the surrounding environment), it's equally (if not more) dangerous to burn. Coal used to turn industrial cities gray and black and make their inhabitants ill. Today, coal combustion endangers human health and well-being via the production of vast quantities of greenhouse gas that promote global warming. It also injects immense amounts of toxins high up into the atmosphere that ultimately settle out into the air we breathe and the water and food we consume.
And that's not the end of it. Once you've burned the stuff (and hopefully used modern technology to "scrub" some of the exhaust flowing up the smokestack), you're still left with yet another mess: the byproduct of the combustion process. In the United States, coal combustion produces nearly 140 million tons of waste – "fly ash,", "scrubber sludge," and other combustion byproducts – each year. These byproducts remain near to or on the site of the coal fired power plant – sort of like an especially vile version of the leftovers in your fireplace.
If you're trying to visualize how much ash and sludge that is, think of it this way: A modern American aircraft carrier like the USS George H.W. Bush (length 1,092 feet) tips the scales at 100,000 tons. This means that the each year, U.S. coal-fired power plants produce 1,400 aircraft carriers worth of ash and sludge.
The current controversy
For a long time, the solution of what to do with fly ash and sludge has been twofold. Most of it was simply left in place or discarded. Some of it, however (as much as 40%) is actually "recycled" for other, seemingly beneficial purposes – like landscaping and in the production of wallboard (used in building construction) and concrete. In North Carolina, the state Department of Transportation has used fly ash in the concrete used for road construction since the mid-1980's.
Unfortunately, in keeping with the increasingly apparent truth that there's no free lunch when it comes to coal, a growing body of evidence shows that, like the substance from which it emanates, coal waste is nasty and dangerous stuff.
Fifteen months ago in Tennessee, there was a disastrous spill of coal byproducts when a dam that had been used to contain a fly ash "pond" collapsed, sending 1.1 billion gallons of slurry (an ash and water mixture) cascading into local rivers and onto local lands.
Even more important than the risks associated with being inundated with ash and sludge, however, is the issue of the toxicity of the stuff itself. Though they've long been treated by utilities as essentially harmless, it turns out that coal byproducts contain a host of incredibly noxious chemicals – arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium and other toxics that cause cancer and brain damage in humans.
Even if you just leave the stuff in place and don't "recycle" it, these chemicals can easily leach out into the water supply and endanger surrounding communities. Tests conducted around utility disposal sites and in and around locations (like a Virginia golf course) where the stuff was used, demonstrate that ground water pollution is a serious hazard.
Just last month, a pair of national environmental groups (the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice) released a new report about the dangers associated with coal waste entitled "Out of Control: Mounting Dangers From Coal Ash Waste Sites." The report brought to light the fact that 31 coal combustion waste sites are known to have contaminated groundwater, wetlands, creeks, or rivers in 14 states: Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
For all of these reasons and others, the federal EPA has been moving to reclassify coal combustion waste as a hazardous chemical (it has long been classified as more benignly). This would place significant new requirements on utilities to store the stuff more safely and greatly limit (if not eliminate) its application toward products and other uses that risk human exposure. Advocates for the environment hope that EPA will act in just a matter of weeks.
The North Carolina debate
In many ways, North Carolina is ground zero for the coal waste debate. The state relies heavily on coal-fired electric plants and is home to 12 coal ash dams – the most in the country. Five of the 31 contaminating sites identified in the EIP/Earthjustice report are in North Carolina. These include sites in Arden (Buncombe County), Goldsboro, Moncure (Chatham County), Rocky Mount, Belews Creek (Stokes County), and Wilmington.
Last year, Governor Perdue weighed in on the side of improved waste site monitoring in the aftermath of the Tennessee disaster and trumpeted her decision to sign a bill that, among other things, enhanced coal dam regulation.
Unfortunately, on the question of regulating coal waste as a hazardous chemical, the Perdue administration has gone the opposite direction and is following the lead of industry – particularly the powerful electric generation companies – in putting on a full court press in opposition to strong EPA action. Late last summer, Perdue's Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, along with the Executive Director of the Utilities Commission Public Staff, wrote to the EPA urging it not to take strong action. Their stated rationales were right out of the standard, big business playbook for defeating environmental protection efforts – namely that such regulation would cost money, raise utility rates and inconvenience business.
Of course, there's probably a kernel of truth in these gripes – just as there often is when it comes to environmental protection: Protecting humans from environmental poisons usually does cost money – sometimes a lot of it – and can cause inconveniences for businesses that were used to doing things a particular way. The same has been true hundreds of times before in the last 40-plus years as American regulators have struggled to limit the degradation of the natural environmental and human health. If we'd let that stop us in the past, though, we'd probably be mourning the final demise of the ozone layer, have tens of millions of Americans struggling with lead poisoning and might even be recovering from an American Chernobyl or two by now.
Ultimately, cost and inconvenience cannot be the deciding issues when human health on a large scale is truly at risk. And if coal waste is truly as toxic and dangerous as the reports of experts indicate (and one environmental expert recently described it as "the dirtiest waste that pollution control devices keep out of the atmosphere") then efforts to delay strong federal regulation are a terrible mistake and represent an extremely shortsighted step by the Perdue administration.
As with the infamous Corvair automobile from the early 1960's that consumer advocates properly branded as "unsafe at any speed," we're coming to see that large scale use of coal is unsafe in just about any form.
Let's hope that the Governor and her allies in the state's business elite come to understand this truth and rethink their position against strong regulation of coal waste before we all live to regret it.