“Companies have proposed turning the ash into cement blocks or gravel, for construction projects. Vocal activists quickly nixed that option, even though it would solve multiple problems and involve virtually no contamination risks. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the real reason for all the vocal consternation is that these agitators simply hate coal and want to drive it out of business.”
“Some activists say Duke (and other companies) should simply dig up millions of tons of ash from various depositories. Not only would that involve hundreds of thousands of dump truck loads, millions of gallons of fuel, and huge dump trucks lumbering through towns and along back roads and highways. A far more basic question is: Take it where, exactly?”
Scary coal ash stories make you wonder: What energy will be left when activists are done?
Barack Obama is no longer president. But the war on coal, affordable energy, economic growth, risk science, regulatory common sense, and modern living standards continues unabated by a well entrenched elite.
Predictions of dangerous manmade global warming and climate change are losing their sway, because President Trump and his cabinet know that real-world temperatures, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice caps, sea levels, floods, and droughts are not in sync with alarmist hypotheses, models, and fear mongering.
Resource depletion and sustainability arguments have run headlong into the reality that we still have at least a century of oil, natural gas and coal, thanks to fracking, other technologies and more efficient power generation systems.
Moreover, coal-fired power plant scrubbers now remove 80–90 percent of airborne particulate, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants. But that means this “fly ash” and noncombustible residues (clinkers) must be sent to landfills. That’s opened a new front for anti-energy activists, who use accidents, detectable pollutants in water, and scary stories about chemical threats to humans to advance their agenda.
In 2008, a Tennessee Valley Authority earthen retainer dam near Knoxville ruptured, sending some 5.4 million cubic yards (1.1 billion gallons) of rain-soaked fly ash into a nearby river, lake, and neighborhood. Twelve homes were inundated with the muck, which contained low levels of arsenic, cadmium, and other metals (which also end up in surface, underground and well water from natural rock formations in many parts of the country. The TVA’s cleanup efforts were less than exemplary, as were its measures to prevent the accident in the first place.
Any potential that future incidents could occur makes it incumbent on companies and regulators to do more to prevent accidents and pollution– and to educate people about the actual risks involved. With fly ash claims being tested in Virginia and other states (part of the climate, sustainability, war on coal, and keep-fossil-fuels-in-the-ground campaign), the educational efforts are essential.
North Carolina: Risks and Solutions
North Carolina provides a good opportunity to discuss realistic and exaggerated risks, and the false claim that “detectable” levels of metals or chemicals always constitute a serious health risk.
Duke Energy operates 14 coal-fired electricity generating plants in the Tar Heel State – and several large fly ash facilities. Like coal itself, the ash contains trace amounts of hexavalent chromium (chromium-6 or Cr-6) and other metals that can be toxic to humans in high doses. Blazing temperatures bond the vast majority of these trace amounts tightly in glassy vitrified ash, and well maintained impoundments ensure that few seep out.
However, tiny amounts can still escape into nearby surface waters and groundwater. Highly sensitive scientific instruments can now detect parts per trillion – the equivalent of a few seconds in 3,300 years. In 2016, an NC state toxicologist ruled that metallic levels detected in surface and ground water around the state were dangerously high. He blamed ash from coal-fired power plants and persuaded NC health officials to send “do not drink” letters to several hundred families living near coal ash disposal sites.
In his view, there is “no safe level” for exposure to Cr-6, and the state should slash its allowable level from 100 parts per billion down to 0.07 ppb (1/1400 the current allowable amount). He claimed this represents a maximum acceptable one-in-one-million lifetime risk of contracting cancer.
Other health officials reviewed the scientific literature, determined that amounts detected posed no health risk, noted that Cr-6 is prevalent in many natural rock formations, and rescinded the warning letters. But the resulting controversy continues, and the company, regulators, and politicians are working to resolve it.
Duke Energy and many health experts maintain that Cr-6 levels found near the ash facilities (and at locations miles away from them) are far below what should be considered to cause health risks. However, it wants to assuage concerns among families closest to the ash facilities. So the company has offered to provide permanent alternative water supplies to those families, by installing new lines from public water sources ($10,000 to $39,000 each) or state-of-the-art home filtration systems ($7,000 to $10,000 apiece).
In January 2017, the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) granted preliminary approval to these company plans for homes within one-half-mile of a coal ash impoundment. Final approval is contingent on state health and environmental departments certifying that water provided via these systems meets “applicable” or “appropriate” standards. That could vary from place to place, because North Carolina applies much tougher standards for well water than for drinking water.
Meanwhile, some activists say Duke (and other companies) should simply dig up millions of tons of ash from various depositories. Not only would that involve hundreds of thousands of dump truck loads, millions of gallons of fuel, and huge dump trucks lumbering through towns and along back roads and highways. A far more basic question is: Take it where, exactly?
Where will the ash cause fewer concerns – and be welcomed by prospective new neighbors? Do the Environmental Working Group, Southern Environmental Law Center, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and other activists have any workable alternatives in mind?
The Real Target: Affordable Electricity
In the past, companies have proposed turning the ash into cement blocks or gravel, for construction projects. Vocal activists quickly nixed that option, even though it would solve multiple problems and involve virtually no contamination risks. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the real reason for all the vocal consternation is that these agitators simply hate coal and want to drive it out of business.
However, the same activists also detest natural gas-generated electricity … and drilling and fracking to produce the gas. They despise and oppose nuclear energy, and want hydroelectric electric dams removed. They claim to support wind and solar power, but conveniently ignore the huge downsides.
Wind and solar involve enormous land use, raw material, wildlife and human health issues – and require fossil fuel “backup” generators that would actually produce 80 percent of the total electricity, and even more as the turbines age. But the worst human health and environmental impacts occur in other countries, like Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and thus can easily be brushed aside.
It’s perverted “environmental justice.” But the activists and their media and political allies get away with it – just as they are rarely held accountable for the economic impacts of their anti-energy campaigns.
Forcing utility companies to spend billions relocating huge ash deposits to “lined, watertight landfills” (in someone else’s backyard) will bring no health or environmental benefits. But it will bankrupt companies, send electricity prices soaring, and hurt poor, minority, and working class families the worst.
As National Black Chamber of Commerce president Harry Alford has repeatedly noted, black and Hispanic families spend 10-50 percent more of their income than white families on heating, air conditioning, lights, and other electrical costs. They are also more likely to lose their jobs, as employers try to deal with higher electricity prices by trimming workforces, and thus endure still lower living standards.
If rates nearly double from current costs in coal-reliant states like North Carolina and Virginia (9 cents per kilowatt-hour) to those in anti-coal New York or Connecticut (17 cents), poor families will have to pay $500-1,000 more annually for electricity. Hospitals, school districts, factories, and businesses will have to spend additional thousands, tens of thousands, or millions. Where will that money come from?
Will businesses have to lay off dozens or hundreds of employees, or close their doors? If they pass costs on to customers, where will families find the extra cash? If hospitals cut services or raise fees, how will that affect patient costs and care? Perhaps the anti-coal groups provide will financial assistance? (In our dreams.)
For facilities like the 665,000-square-foot Inova Fairfax Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Northern Virginia, that translates into $1,855,000 per year at 9 cents/kWh, but $3,505,000 at 17 cents. That’s a $1.6-million difference.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, NC is 530,600 square feet. That’s $1,480,000/year at 9 cents/kWh or $2,796,000/year at 17 cents: a $1.3-million gap.
Those cost increases would result in lost jobs and reduced patient care. Now imagine the impacts on factories, schools, churches, grocery stores, malls and thousands of other major electricity users – to address health problems that exist only in the fertile minds of unrepentant activists and regulators.
The war on coal, petroleum, nuclear, and hydroelectric power is an eco-imperialist war on reliable, affordable electricity, on jobs, and on poor and minority families. Policies that drive energy prices up drive people out of jobs, drive companies out of business, drive families into green energy poverty.
Unfortunately, slick, well-financed anti-coal campaigns can and do simply ignore these hard realities. The news media rarely bring them up, and by the time people catch on, the agitators have beaten their target into submission, and moved on to next one, too often with similar results. (Part II tomorrow.)