How Kentucky's Illegal Coal-Ash Contamination Typifies an American Crisis
The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection (KDEP) had knowledge that a utility's pond had been discharging “highly contaminated ‘orange colored’ water” through a drain pipe, but a proposal from Kentucky Utilities remains on the table.
The company apparently wants to discharge even more orange water, which would be a byproduct of a proposed coal ash landfill on top of the main coal ash pond at the 60-year-old E.W. Brown coal-burning power plant, just outside Lexington. The pond is unlined, already contains 26 million tons of ash and is a stone's throw away from residential neighborhoods, vacation homes and Herrington Lake.
“Protecting the health of the local community is critical, and the state must manage these contaminants,” said Deborah Payne, health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. “When metals leach out of coal ash, they can move through groundwater into drinking water supplies, endangering public health.”
The study, Dangerous Waters: America’s Coal Ash Crisis, is a national one that mostly uses Kentucky to exemplify what an issue coal ash is for the communities living near it. According to the report, a person living within one mile of an unlined coal ash pond that co-disposes of coal refuse has a one-in-50 lifetime risk of cancer—more than 2,000 times higher than the EPA goal for cancer risk. According to the EPA, 1.54 million American children live near coal ash storage sites.
Coal-fired power plants in the U.S. produce 140 million tons of the hazardous solid waste each year. Much of it is stored in more than 1,400 sites in 45 states.
Kentucky has 48 coal ash ponds, eight of which are rated "high hazard." With 64,000 acre-feet, the state has the third-largest coal ash storage capacity in the nation. It's enough to cover the Churchill Downs racetrack under 800 feet of toxic sludge.
The Sierra Club and Earthjustice uncovered KDEP's knowledge of the orange water through a public records request. Tests on the water showed arsenic at more than 14 times the amount determined safe for Kentucky drinking water. A dozen or so springs southeast of the plant's impoundments are discharging contaminants into Herrington Lake—a major recreational and fishing area—which has shown unhealthy levels of mercury, and discharges from the coal ash impoundments show significant levels of selenium. The groups also found that two of the springs contained boron at levels beyond the EPA’s Health Advisory for Children. Herrington Lake flows into the Kentucky River.
"The state has had information about [Kentucky Utilities owner Louisville Gas & Electric's] coal ash contamination for years, and has done nothing to act on it,” Kristin Henry, senior attorney for the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “The problem has persisted and may be getting worse.”
In response to the investigation, KDEP has asked the utility to submit an ash pond closure plan and to explain the impacts of piling tens of millions of tons of coal ash landfill on top of a leaking pond. KDEP's Division of Waste also said it would reissue public notice and open up the proposal for public comments.
"Kentucky power plants generate more than 9 million tons of dangerous coal ash each year, and none of it is federally regulated. Household garbage is better regulated than this toxic mess," Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar said.
"Kentucky's waters are being poisoned, and Kentucky families are paying the price for lax federal and state oversight."
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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