Thanks to the third-largest and most recent coal ash spill at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., this past February—and the federal investigation and political nonsense that followed—it may seem as though coal ash is only a North Carolina issue, but it is not. Coal ash pollution is a national issue (well, truly, it’s an international issue) that warrants national media attention, though it rarely enjoys that sort of spotlight.
However, with MSNBC’s coal-ash segment last night and news from The Charlotte Business Journal that CBS’ “60 Minutes” is working on a special investigation that should air in about a month, the spotlight is coming coal ash’s way. This will be 60 Minutes’ second special on coal ash.
As the clock ticks down to Dec. 19, expect the national spotlight to intensify. That’s the day the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release its coal ash regulations after more than three decades of pondering what it should do about the stuff that can be found even in states that don’t have coal plants, like Rhode Island.
To fully understand the coal ash issue, you must look to history. A hundred years ago today, the soot from coal-fired power plants was released into the air and the communities nearby were coated in the black stuff. After World War II, however, that would no longer do. People had grown tired of their homes, cars, children and pets being coated in corrosive, oily coal soot; it was a reality that didn’t fit the shiny ideals of the 1950s. So, the people complained.
Around that time the coal industry began watering down its air pollution and pumping that slurry–which often contained other forms of waste water, like raw sewage–into holding ponds. The practice did improve air quality, but it was short-sighted.
Fast-forward a few decades, and we realize that dumping concentrated coal waste into unlined, earthen dams isn’t the best idea. In fact it’s a pretty rotten idea, especially since coal ash can be reused in products like concrete and asphalt where it’s encapsulated so wind and water can’t carry it off. That practice that pre-dates the waste ponds by at least a decade, is one that enables the coal companies to sell their trash and keeps the sludgy, toxic soup that is coal-ash waste water away from the rivers and lakes that eventually flow through faucets in homes and businesses.
The practice of removing coal pollution from the air and storing it in waste ponds also pre-dates the U.S. EPA, most state environmental agencies, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Not to be repetitive, but this is an important point: The coal industry made a real attempt to mitigate air pollution after the public complained decades ago. Sure, burying coal trash in their backyards like cavemen has backfired now, but let’s at least give them credit for responding to community concerns once upon a time.