Coal Ash in the Spotlight as EPA Deadline Approaches
Coal ash is back in the spotlight. CBS just aired this blockbuster piece on 60 Minutes investigating the fallout from the coal ash spill into North Carolina's Dan River, and this week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is due to release the first-ever national safeguards for disposal of this toxic industrial sludge, to meet a court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19.
Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina. Photo credit: Appalachian Voices.
For far too long, families across this country living near coal ash sites have been living under a cloud of fear, worrying that their children were at risk because they played outside breathing in coal ash dust or made pitchers of lemonade with water from the tap. Hopefully, that's all about to change.
If you haven't watched the 60 Minutes story, you should check it out online. Through interviews with the CEO of Duke Energy, the governor of North Carolina and environmental advocates, the piece makes it starkly clear why the status quo has failed us when it comes to protecting our drinking water from toxic coal ash. Leaving coal ash management up to the states has had tragic consequences for millions of Americans, from North Carolina to Tennessee.
However, 60 Minutes did leave out one big part of the story—just how widespread the coal ash problem is across the U.S. As you can see in our interactive map here, there are more than 1,400 coal ash disposal sites across the country. More than 500 of those are ponds and other wet storage facilities, long recognized as the worst possible way to dispose of coal ash, contain a witches' brew of toxic substances like mercury, lead and arsenic.
Our fellow Americans living near these coal ash sites are frightened for the safety of their drinking water and the air they breathe. That's why a half million people weighed in with the EPA to support strong coal ash safeguards, why thousands turned out to the EPA hearings on the protections and hundreds have taken time out of there lives to come to Washington DC to ask for strong protections since first proposed back in 2010.
If you want to see just how long we've been working toward this final standard, check out this photo of me and my then-newborn daughter at the Charlotte coal ash hearing back in 2010. She's now a preschooler with a full head of hair and a major princesses/fairy/ballerina obsession!
At long last, the eve of the final standard is here, and the big question is whether or not it will be strong enough to safeguard our health. We don’t know what the final standard will look like, but when we review it, here are some of the questions we’ll be asking:
- Are lined and covered landfills required for coal ash storage?
- Does the standard require cleanup of existing coal ash sites, or are they grandfathered in and exempt from the standard?
- What are the standards for processing coal ash at power plants?
- Will there be monitoring of coal ash sites?
- Is the standard federally enforceable?
It's crazy, but it's true—the banana peel you throw away is, once taken to the landfill, subject to better safeguards than the toxic waste that comes from the boilers of coal-fired power plants. Enough is enough. This week, we're looking to EPA and the Obama Administration to close that loophole once and for all, and ensure our air and water are safe.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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