“Newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Trump Administration are encouraging states to solve their own problems. Coal-related controversies like these offer many states and communities excellent opportunities to find novel solutions that recognize sound science, hidden agendas, often limited options, and undesirable repercussions of poorly informed policy decisions. Let’s hope they are up to the task.”
Preventing ruptures and spills is primarily a function of selecting, building, and maintaining the best possible ash landfill facilities. A much more vital and fundamental issue involves alleged toxicity risks. Anti-coal activists insist the risks are unacceptably high; sound science says otherwise. (Also see Part I yesterday)
Like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), North Carolina sets allowable Cr-6 limits at 100 ppb for drinking water (equivalent to 100 seconds in 33 years or 4 cups in 660,000 gallons of water). But the state also applies a 10 ppb standard for well water. (Ultra-cautious California applies a 10 ppb standard across the board.) Yet some still campaign for a far lower standard of 0.07 ppb (70 parts per trillion).
In 2015, the NCDEQ tested 24 wells located two to five miles from the nearest coal plant or coal ash deposit; 20 had Cr-6 levels of 0.07 ppb or higher, underscoring the contaminant’s diverse origins.
A 2016 Duke University study found that hexavalent chromium is prevalent in many North Carolina surface and ground waters. Some comes from coal ash deposits, but much is leached from igneous and other rocks found throughout the Piedmont region of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.
2014 tests consistently found Cr-6 in Greensboro, NC city water supplies above 0.07 parts per billion, triggering “do not drink” advisories to some well water users. However, May 2016 tests could not even detect the chemical, the Greensboro News & Record reported.
Health experts note that Cr-6 is found in 70% to 90% of all water supplies in the United States. Applying a 0.07 ppb or similar low standard could mean telling hundreds of millions of Americans not to drink their water! Moreover, studies have found that Cr-6 in water is safe even at 100 ppb or higher.
A 2012 paper in the Journal of Applied Toxicology concluded that regularly drinking water with 210 ppb of Cr-6 poses no health or cancer risks. That is 3,000 times higher than the 0.07 ppb level that triggered the 2016 North Carolina “do not drink” letters. (The real health problems involve airborne chromium-6.)
A Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study evaluated 52,000 workers employed for up to 25 years at several PG&E plants, which were the center of controversy in lawsuits in 1993 and were later featured in the Erin Brockovich movie. Their incidence of cancer was no higher than for California residents in general, the study found; in fact, their death rates were actually lower than for California’s population at large, even though their jobs regularly exposed them to Chromium-6 and other chemicals.
Investigative reporter Michael Fumento discovered that no ill effects were found even in rodents given Cr-6 at 25 parts per million – 250 times higher than EPA’s 100 ppb safety standard, and 357,000 times higher than the 0.07 parts per billion level that some want for North Carolina and the USA.
Equally important, an ability to detect a substance does not mean it poses a risk. Cancer is certainly scary, but the risk of getting cancer is not the same as dying from it. And people routinely accept risks of dying from activities they happily engage in daily.
For example, the National Safety Council puts the lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash at 1 in 113. That’s 8,850 times greater than the alleged lifetime risk of contracting cancer from 0.07 ppb Cr-6.
And yet people (probably including many who live near the North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and other coal ash impoundments) routinely and happily accept risks associated with driving – and with drinking and smoking. However, many of them seem easily terrified by “detectable” levels of strange-sounding chemicals.
“Precautionary Principle” Risks
Many activist groups use climate, chemical, and cancer scares to advance campaigns to shut down coal-fired power plants – and ultimately to impose fewer job opportunities and lower living standards on people all over the world. Forcing utility companies to spend billions of dollars relocating millions of tons of coal ash is a good tactic, especially when it involves the so-called “precautionary principle,” which essentially says:
We must avoid any risks of using chemicals, fossil fuels and other technologies – and never discuss the risks of not using them. We must emphasize minor, alleged, manageable, exaggerated, and even fabricated risks that a technology might cause – but ignore the risks the technology would reduce or prevent.
That double standard helps advance activist agendas – at high costs for all but wealthy classes and ruling elites, as affordable energy option are eliminated, one after the other, and numerous workers are laid off or forced to take multiple lower-paying part-time jobs, with few or no healthcare or other benefits.
Layoffs, long-term unemployment, and multiple jobs bring greater stress and depression, reduced nutrition, sleep deprivation, greater alcohol, drug, spousal and child abuse, and higher suicide, stroke, heart attack, and cancer rates, medical experts say. They mean every life supposedly saved by shutting down power plants would be offset by impaired health and real lives lost as a result.
The 2016 elections represented a rejection of this anti-energy, anti-science, anti-growth, anti-people mindset – and of top-down, Washington-knows-best policies that left our economy limping and millions out of work.
Newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Trump Administration are encouraging states to solve their own problems. Coal-related controversies like these offer many states and communities excellent opportunities to find novel solutions that recognize sound science, hidden agendas, often limited options, and undesirable repercussions of poorly informed policy decisions. Let’s hope they are up to the task.