Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Coal ash, coastal capitalism, & evacuations

The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a utility industry organization with members like electric cooperatives, utility companies, and power and gas associations, filed a petition a few days ago asking EPA head Scott Pruitt to reconsider regulations on coal ash, which they say are “ill-conceived and burdensome.”

“Coal combustion residuals” is industry speak for coal ash, or the byproduct of coal-fired power plants. The waste can come in many forms: sludge, fly ash that’s made from powdery material like coal dust and silica, and gas. Toxins like mercury, cadmium, lead, and arsenic are found in coal ash, but utility companies dump the waste into open landfills or mix them with water to make ponds to get rid of it. From there, it can seep into groundwater and soil and travel through the air.

Utility companies have been storing coal waste like this for decades, but the issue really entered the national consciousness in 2008 when a dam used to contain coal ash from Tennessee Valley Authority’s plant in Roane County, Tennessee broke, releasing a billion gallons of fly ash that traveled hundreds of acres out. The slow-moving sludge spill destroyed 12 homes and flowed into a nearby lake and river. It turned out that TVA let the sludge and ash build up for so many years, it leaked and broke under the pressure, resulting in the largest coal ash spill in history. There were many lawsuits and congressional hearings following the event, and TVA paid millions to the county for cleanup, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the EPA established the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule. This requires utilities to line their ponds with a protective layer, perform basic contamination monitoring, and post the results for the public. That same year, a coal ash pond in North Carolina owned by a closed Duke Energy power plant spilled nearly 82,000 gallons of waste after a pipe broke.

The Residuals Rule doesn’t categorize coal ash, which is filled with toxins, as a hazardous waste. It doesn’t require companies to handle or remove the waste in a certain way. Many old ponds still remain unlined, but they don’t have to be cleaned up unless it’s proven they are polluting groundwater. Coal ash is still considered a solid waste, like trash, and remains largely unregulated.

Environmental group Earthjustice estimates that there are 1,400 coal ash sites across the U.S. At least 200 have contaminated water sources, and many have dams that are in danger of breaking. This map shows where they are located:
Throughout the last few months, I’ve shared stories about coal ash pollution because awareness about it is growing; communities in Virginia are suing Dominion Energy over heavy metal contamination from coal ash and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division recently held public hearings about how to drain several ponds.

The utility industry group says that the basic regulations in place are causing coal plants to shut down, which hurts their business. That’s not accurate. Coal-fired power plants are shuttering due to energy market forces like the rise of natural gas and renewables. And yet, the utilities seem confident that Pruitt will help them upend this rule — and they’re probably right.

Either way, most of the waste that has been generated sits untouched and unclaimed. Several years ago, the EPA said it did not have the jurisdiction to regulate abandoned waste from closed plants. Despite lawsuits and settlements, these sites have been around for decades, and they will take decades more to contain, move, and monitor even if they are dealt with properly. However the regulatory battles play out, the ponds probably aren’t going anywhere unless communities push hard for it, like they are in Virginia and Georgia — or, they spill.

Stories worth your time 

University of Virginia history professor Andrew Kahrl has spent years researching and writing about how a lot of coastal property was once owned by black families, but government policies pushed them into “segregated, polluted nooks of the shoreline, if not off the land altogether.” This Q&A with Kahrl for Grist digs into his research on coastal capitalism and racial segregation, and how that is exacerbated by climate change. There are some fascinating examples in there of South Carolina and North Carolina beach towns.

Black lung, the respiratory disease coal miners get from breathing in coal dust, is making a comeback. According to this Smithsonian story, “today, the disease sickens roughly 1 in 14 underground miners with more than 25 years experience who submit to voluntary check ups—a rate nearly double that from the disease’s lowest point from 1995 to 1999.” Why? Miners are working longer hours because of the decline of unions, and digging deeper into the rock, which is filled with lung irritants, to find the last of the coal seams.

OZY looks at nuclear power potential in the South. The story focuses on the construction of Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear power plant, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The delays in Georgia and in other states have caused anger in local communities, which are relying on the plants for job creation and cheaper utility bills. Now, people are fighting back.

News flying under the radar

Mega-farms in South Carolina may soon face limits on the amount of groundwater they can siphon. As of right now, companies can take as much water as they want without state oversight.

Tampa transportation officials are worried about traffic caused by 1.5 million people during hurricane evacuations, so they’re creating a new evacuation plan. One former official said that in the past, “we’ve kind of sanitized [evacuations]. We haven’t told people you’re going to be in the worst traffic ever in your life. Stop and go. Crawling at 5 mph.”

Only 22 of North Carolina’s 100 counties will have to undergo vehicle emissions tests starting this fall. The state’s air quality has improved drastically since it started requiring emissions tests in the early 2000s.

Just in case you missed this: Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who just spent a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards, wrote a letter to President Trump saying that “‘all too often [Congress] wants to punish coal companies, coal operators and coal supervisors’ and praised the administration for its efforts thus far to ‘roll back punitive coal mine and coal use regulations.'”