What a Real Coal Ash Cleanup Looks Like
By Emilie Karrick Surrusco
The toxic mess left behind from burning coal is a growing, nationwide problem. But we're seeing that state governments can be convinced to do the right thing and clean it up. Recently, North Carolina joined its neighboring state to become a trendsetter in the proper disposal of coal ash waste.
Following on the heels of similar news in Virginia, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on April 1 ordered Duke Energy to completely excavate and close all of its coal ash ponds in the state.
This is no less than "momentous news," according to Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, for a state that is the nation's ninth largest producer of coal ash — a toxic byproduct from burning coal. For states across the nation where federal regulations are forcing companies to submit closure and cleanup plans for coal ash contamination, North Carolina's plan provides an example of what safe closure looks like. For states that are formulating their own coal ash rules, like Illinois, the North Carolina plan is a blueprint.
"The state decided that protection of human health and the environment must be placed above the convenience of Duke Energy," Evans said. "It's a great moment when the state government has the courage to make the right decision for the people of North Carolina. This is truly a model for the nation."
Coal ash spilled by Hurricane Florence coats a turtle in North Carolina. (Riverkeepers cleaned and released the turtle.)
PETE HARRISON / EARTHJUSTICE
For decades, utilities have disposed of toxic coal ash dangerously, storing it in unlined pits that allow the coal ash to leak into groundwater and spill into nearby lakes, rivers and streams. The true implications of this improper disposal are only beginning to be understood. After federal coal ash regulations required utilities to publicly report groundwater monitoring data, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project released a report last month that analyzes groundwater monitoring data at 265 power plants across the country for the first time.
The report shows that groundwater near 91 percent of 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. In many cases, the contamination is significant enough that coal plant operators must submit cleanup plans. In the next six months alone, we are expecting about 100 such plans.
"The modus operandi of this industry from 1900 to today is to dispose of its toxic waste as cheaply as possible. This has had disastrous consequences," said Evans. "The long-term remedy is to stop producing the dangerous waste, but short of that, if you have ash in groundwater, you have to excavate."
This report also listed the nation's most contaminated sites — including Duke Energy's Allen Steam Station in Belmont, North Carolina.
Duke Energy, which has 14 former power plant sites in North Carolina, has consistently tried to cover up the problem of coal ash contamination and dispose of its toxic stew improperly — its actions resulted in a $102 million fine and a guilty plea to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act stemming from activities at multiple North Carolina coal plants.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, along with tenacious activists across the state, have spent the past seven years fighting Duke Energy, resulting in victories that forced the nation's largest utility to clean up its mess at eight plant sites. Now, thanks to the state's order, Duke Energy is required to file a plan by Aug. 1 that explains how it will empty and close its six remaining plant sites in the state, which include 11 coal ash ponds.
"Public meetings were held at the six sites, and local communities came out in force. They were unanimous in demanding that Duke Energy remove the coal ash from unlined pits," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Duke has several weeks to decide if they are going to accept this decision, or instead if it's going to continue to litigate and lobby to put off dealing with its coal ash pollution."
While the state's order is a significant victory for the people of North Carolina, it's been a long time coming for activists and community leaders who have watched as beloved lakes and rivers have become increasingly polluted and drinking water wells became undrinkable.
In 2014, North Carolina experienced a grim wake-up call when 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from Duke Energy's Dan River plant — sending 27 million gallons of sludge filled with toxic chemicals into a river that supplies drinking water to surrounding communities. Following that spill, the state legislature passed the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA), which required the DEQ to evaluate coal ash disposal at each of Duke Energy's plant sites.
At the same time, hurricanes and increasingly heavy rains have caused coal ash pits across North Carolina and the southeastern U.S. to overflow. During Hurricane Florence, when 35 inches of rain fell over four days in North Carolina, coal ash from the Duke Energy plant in Goldsboro spilled into the Neuse River, and a coal ash lagoon at the L.V. Sutton Power Station in Wilmington was flooded.
"From climate change-fueled storms to industry spills, a perfect storm of disasters was enough to make a state like North Carolina do the right thing when communities demanded protection," said Evans.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is intent on keeping that from happening at the national level. Turning a blind eye to the mounting evidence of contamination from coal ash dumps and the increasing intensity of storms that cause coal ash spills, the Trump EPA has moved to weaken the 2015 coal ash rule rather than strengthen it. Despite a court order from the DC Circuit Court to expand and strengthen the federal rule, EPA abides by its industry-friendly agenda to gut federal protections.
However, as North Carolina and Virginia have shown, state governments can be convinced to take action where the Trump administration won't.
In Illinois, progress is happening piecemeal, with hopes that the state will soon take comprehensive action. The Coal Ash Cleanup and Storage Act was recently introduced in the state legislature to address the fact that 22 of the state's 24 coal-fired power plants have contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of one or more toxic pollutants. In addition, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Prairie Rivers Network, recently filed a lawsuit against Dynegy, a local utility that has been allowing toxic waste from its coal-ash pits to leach into groundwater and the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois' only Wild and Scenic River.
"The public wants protection from coal ash and coal ash pollution," said Holleman. "The only place in the country where there is backward movement on this is in the Trump administration and the EPA. I have never encountered a person who wanted less protection from coal ash pollution and this includes in communities that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump."
Despite EPA's lack of action, communities across the nation are stepping forward to demand that polluters clean up their toxic mess — state governments are starting to listen and pick up where the federal government left off.
New Report Reveals Severe #Groundwater Contamination at Illinois #CoalAsh Dumps https://t.co/kAM9ixJyRk @BeyondCoal @Coal_Ash— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1543788038.0
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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