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Coal Ash Report Another Reason to Shy Away from Fossil Fuels

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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Recent news about the impact of coal ash disposal has on groundwater provides the businesses community with yet another loud, strong reason to demand a more healthful and sustainable electricity supply from their local utilities. However, as awareness of global pollution problems grow, businesses with a clean power profile should not rest on their laurels.

In other words, ditching coal is just one of several high-profile areas in which businesses can take meaningful action on global environmental challenges.

The coal ash problem

For all the coal burned in U.S. power plants, the nation had no coordinated plan for the safe, sustainable disposal of leftover ash until the EPA proposed new rules in 2010.

Typically, coal ash is stored in open lagoons. The new rules did not eliminate that option They were simply designed to make lagoon storage less risk-prone. These rules were aimed at preventing the “leaking of contaminants into ground water, blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, and the catastrophic failure of coal ash surface impoundments.”

It appears to be a case of too little, way too late. The new rules were finalized in 2015 but coal stakeholders won a series of exemptions to some of the provisions, and the legal battle continues to this day.

Meanwhile, the EPA under the Trump administration has continued to revise the 2015 ash disposal rules.

In a statement published last year, newly minted EPA chief Andrew Wheeler — formerly a lobbyist for Murray Energy and other leading coal stakeholders — explained that the amendments are designed to “provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash.”

The coal ash chickens come home to roost, in groundwater

In the latest development, the organizations Environmental Integrity Project and EarthJustice surveyed information from 265 coal ash disposal sites in 39 states.

The group found that “91 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants with monitoring data are contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants.”

In a press release, the organizations noted that the first-of-its-kind data review had never been done before, because prior to 2015 there was no reporting requirement for coal power plants.

Here is the key finding:

“…the groundwater near 242 of the 265 power plants with monitoring data contained unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, a known carcinogen, and lithium, which is associated with neurological damage, among other pollutants.”

The other 23 power plants were exempt from monitoring, either because their coal ash dumps closed before 2015 or they earned an extension.

The report further notes that “many of the coal ash waste ponds are poorly and unsafely designed, with less than 5 percent having waterproof liners to prevent contaminants from leaking into the groundwater, and 59 percent built beneath the water table or within five feet of it.”

The end of coal, and natural gas, too

Now would be a good time to call your local utility, find out if it is still sourcing your electricity from coal power plants, and encourage them it to find more sustainable alternatives.

Don’t fall for the natural gas trick, either. Natural gas provides for a cleaner burn at power plants, but shareholder pressure is already building on companies to do a better job of disclosing risks and impacts related to natural gas operations at the source point.

Fracked or not, fossil natural gas carries a heavy load of baggage including water resource issues as well as air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the wellhead and all through the distribution network.

Public opposition to new gas pipeline construction can also ripple out and create a negative impact on businesses that use natural gas.

The good news is that renewables are beginning to push both natural gas and coal out of the power generation market. Gas is also beginning to lose its grip on heating, cooling and cooking. Any nudge from the business community helps to accelerate that trend.

The beginning of action

The urgency of today’s energy transition is already raising awareness that every business can make a contribution to change.

Sometime within the foreseeable future, the public will begin to take clean power for granted. Businesses aiming to raise their sustainability profile will have to look around for another avenue of action.

The plastic pollution problem provides one good example in which every business can step up and stand out, simply by adjusting their supply chain decisions.

Another emerging example is an old standby for corporate action: tree planting.

Planting trees may seem like old hat, but a new NASA study is shining a spotlight on the impact of broad, large-scale tree planting efforts.

Back in 2016, NASA reported that organized tree-planting activities were showing up in satellite imagery.

The new NASA tree study, reported last month, confirms the trend:

“Data from NASA satellites shows that China and India are leading the increase in greening on land. The effect stems mainly from ambitious tree planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries.”

According to NASA, thanks to human activity “the world is literally a greener place today than it was 20 years ago.”

Clearly, tree planting programs alone are not sufficient to counterbalance the impact of greenhouse emissions.

Nevertheless, the good news indicates that human activity — and sustainable business planning — can solve problems as well as create them.

As for coal ash, leakage from lagoons into groundwater is only part of the problem. Catastrophic coal ash lagoon failures, such as those occurring in North Carolina and Tennessee, provide businesses with yet another business case to advocate for clean power at the local level.

Image credit: Ins1122/Flickr

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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