New Orleans There’s no getting around it: coal is a problem. Everyone seems to know the climate and coal are oil and water; a toxic and fatal mix. Yet for all of the scientific evidence and national promises from one country after another, coal is still burning bright. Part of the current slippage has to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and part of it has to do with general foot dragging and national economics pitted against the global good in India, China, and until recently, Australia. After decades of pit closures and declining use of coal in England, the country just permitted a new mine for the first time in decades. Germany has retreated from its “just transitions” program because of the Russian crisis as well, where it seems too much of its oil supply was controlled.
Given all of this, many might not be thinking about what happens to the coal ash after the coal is burned, and that’s exactly what power and coal companies are hoping. What doesn’t go in the air and get sucked into our lungs is stored in pools near the plants. These pools of ash are a problem. They leach into the soil and often contaminate water sources, whether rivers or wells.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Coal Ash Rule requiring companies to clean up polluted ground water. Seven years later, here we are and the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, and others find that 96% of the companies still have no plans to clean up the contamination. I talked recently on Wade’s World to Abel Russ, the senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, and co-author of the report, “Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps”.
There are no good guys here. In every state where coal is burned for power, there are coal ash dumps being ignored and left to their worse devices. I asked about Entergy’s White Bluff Plant at Redfield, Arkansas, about halfway between Little Rock and Pine Bluff, which ACORN fiercely and somewhat effectively opposed fifty years ago. That plant, reportedly slated to be decommissioned in the next year or so, is also of course named on this rogue’s gallery, but it’s not alone, but one of five in Arkansas and one of the 265 these researchers found around the country. They found groundwater contamination in 43 states from 242 coal plants. A presser on the report noted that “…the power industry continues to generate about 70 million tons of coal ash annually. After 100 years of burning coal, U.S. power plants have generated a total of about five billion tons of coal ash – enough toxic waste to reach the moon in train cars.” Under Trump, the EPA had no particular interest in forcing compliance with the rule. The question now is whether the current administration will be aggressive in this area. President Biden has retracted some of the rules that attempted to gut the Clean Water Act, so there’s hope, but meanwhile people in some communities are swallowing this problem daily.
Many of the coal ash pools have now been lined, preventing further leakage, but the language requiring cleanup “as soon as feasible” seems to be interpreted by most companies as sometime on the other side of never. Russ and his associates are clear that nothing is being done, but also certain about what needs to be done. Using the Ash Tracker tool they have created, it’s easy to see, if you have the courage. where this is a problem near you. Earthjustice also has an extensive database on coal ash in more than 700 sites. This is worth raising a stink about everywhere.