EPA Allows Coal Ash Ponds to Stay Open Despite Court Order
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a rule change on Friday that will allow some coal power plants to ignore a court order to clean up coal ash ponds, which leech toxic materials into soil and groundwater. The rule change will allow some coal ash ponds to stay open for years while others that have no barrier to protect surrounding areas are allowed to stay open indefinitely, according to the AP.
The arsenic-laced sludge that fills coal ash ponds is likely to leak when just a plastic barrier protects it. It is far more likely to pollute nearby soil and water when the pits have a clay barrier, according to researchers, as The Hill reported.
A 2018 order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had forced the EPA to close coal ash ponds that did not have plastic lining and were likely to leak toxic chemicals, making Friday's rule change seem like a blatant move to undermine the court's authority, according to environmental groups who promised to sue to stop the rule change, as The Hill reported.
Environmentalists argue that the rule change is a favor to the coal industry, for which EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler served as a lobbyist prior to joining the Trump administration. The move allows the industry to dump its byproducts inexpensively and irresponsibly.
"The reason the utilities are arguing to keep the ponds is because they have put in these unlined pits out the back door of the power plant that act as a catchall for their toxic waste," said Lisa Evans, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, as the AP reported. "They don't want to get rid of them because they are cheap."
Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project commissioned a study on coal ash ponds and found that 91 percent of them were leaking toxic chemicals beyond what was permitted by EPA regulations, as The Hill reported. Their study found that heavy metals from the waste was polluting nearby drinking wells and groundwater.
Coal ash is produced when coal is burned to produce power. It is full of arsenic, mercury, lead and several other hazardous heavy metals. In the U.S., coal plants create nearly 100 million tons annually of ash and other waste, according to the AP.
"When ponds without lining leak, it's often more aggressive, faster and harder to control," said Evans, as The Hill reported. "Utilities are asking for favors and exemptions and EPA is willing to give them and is willing to rush to provide these exemptions."
The 2018 court decision found that clay lined coal ash ponds, or unlined ponds, are simply dangerous, as the AP reported.
Evans noted that the Obama-era Resource Conservation and Recovery Act required power plants to close unlined coal-ash ponds by April 2019, but the EPA keeps extending the deadline, as the AP reported.
By rewriting the rule, coal plants are able to get around the mandates of the 2015 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by simply showing that their coal ash ponds pose no threat to human health.
"The Trump EPA is flouting the court's decision," said Evans, as the AP reported. "I've never seen anything like this before."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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