Pennsylvania Regulators Fast Track Coal Ash Disposal Plans Despite Flaws
By Sharon Kelly
Across the U.S., the shale rush has unleashed a frenzy of excitement about domestic energy supplies. But the oil and gas produced from fracking comes along with billions of gallons of wastewater and tons of mud and rock that carry radioactive materials and heavy metals. As problems with disposal mount, the industry has offered mostly vague promises of “recycling” to describe how the waste will be handled over the long run.
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As the nation gears up to produce vast amounts of shale oil and gas—and the toxic waste that comes along with it—it’s worth taking a look back at the failures of another industry to handle its toxic waste responsibly—the coal industry.
Communities across America are still struggling to resolve problems left behind decades ago from coal mining and related industrial pollution.
These aren’t merely yesterday’s problems—the ash from burning coal at coal-fired power plants remains the single largest waste stream in the U.S.
In Pennsylvania, state officials have begun to quietly fast-track plans to allow barges to haul 3.5 million tons a year of hazardous coal ash from one disposal site to a new one, despite objections from the state's environmental regulators describing the disposal plans as seriously deficient.
The hazards of shipping the coal ash in rivers are similar to those associated with fracking waste. A spill could directly pollute the rivers that serve as drinking water supplies to millions with an entire barge full of the heavy-metal laden waste. And with coal ash, there are unique hazards—there are no rules that would require the ash to be hauled in covered barges to prevent the arsenic- and mercury-laced dust from blowing into rivers and onto neighboring communities, according to Coast Guard officials.
And, the state still lacks a long-term plan for how to safely handle the coal waste without polluting air or water once the barges arrive at their desination.
For decades, entranced by economic benefits of mining and burning coal, state and federal regulators allowed coal giants to put off dealing with their toxic waste—with the result that these waste piles and pits have grown to enormous proportions.
Since 1974, coal company FirstEnergy has mixed ash and scrubber waste from its Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, PA, with water and pumped it via pipeline to an enormous lagoon called Little Blue Run. Little Blue Run is now the nation's largest unlined wastewater pit, spanning two states and bordering a third. Under orders to close the pit down and clean up Little Blue Run, FirstEnergy must now tackle the enormous challenge of clean up.
Early indicators suggest that state regulators may once again kick the can down the road. Currently FirstEnergy plans to ship its waste from Little Blue Run to another unlined disposal site, the La Belle coal mine waste dump in Luzerne Township, PA. This is a site where residents have long complained of a litany of health problems they say are tied to the coal waste.
FirstEnergy’s plan has drawn fire from a broad array of community groups. Even the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has voiced concerns. In October, the DEP sent a 29-page letter to FirstEnergy, detailing more than 100 problems with the company’s plan to empty Little Blue Run, cap the site with a foot of soil and leave much of the ash buried with no liner below to keep water from washing heavy metals downwards towards the water table. The rest will be shipped to Luzerne.
Nonetheless, the state has moved behind the scenes to grease the wheels for FirstEnergy. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, FirstEnergy’s barging plan “could be approved by the state before the public gets a chance to fully comment on important parts of the proposal, according to four environmental organizations.”
The barging permit is being pushed through in what lawyers for the groups say is a break with precedent. "For some reason FirstEnergy doesn't want to say in the general permit what it's going to do with the waste, and DEP seems to be taking the position that the permit doesn't require that,” Alayne Gobeille, an Environmental Integrity Project attorney told the paper. "But that's different from my understanding of the general permit provisions and different than what DEP required in the past."
The contractor that FirstEnergy plans to use to barge the waste from Little Blue Run to La Belle has a long history of environmental violations. In March, the Environmental Integrity Project and Public Justice announced a lawsuit against the contractor, Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., over improper disposal of tons of coal-ash waste at the La Belle coal mine dump.
That contractor has even previously sunk a barge carrying coal waste at that very same La Belle site. On May 16, 2006 at approximately 1:30 a.m., a 24-inch gash from a submerged mooring ring caused a Matt Canestrale barge carrying more than one thousand tons of coal waste to sink in the Monongahela River. This sent a plume of more than 35 tons of the coal waste into the river, which serves as a drinking water source for Pittsburgh and other towns.
The company’s slow response to the spill prompted the DEP to send a Jan. 2, 2007 letter to the company complaining. Their employees, “seemed unaware that a spill to the Monongahela River needed to be properly remediated and reported to the Department,” the letter said, adding that that the company’s clean-up methods used after the spill were “inadequate.”
FirstEnergy’s plan calls for Matt Canestrale to haul 45 barge loads a day from Little Blue Run to the La Belle site starting as soon as next year.
The health hazards from coal ash are increasingly drawing attention from federal regulators, as evidence of its toxicity slowly mounts, but locals say the problems in their community are already clear.
"We’ve had problems with cancer and everything else," Luzerne Township Supervisor Ted Kollar told CBS News, describing how the coal ash already stored in La Belle has affected his town.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently considering a move to label coal ash hazardous waste, which would bring it under federal oversight through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Pennsylvania regulators have opposed that plan, saying it would complicate efforts like FirstEnergy's plan to empty Little Blue Run. In October, then-head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Michael Krancer, sent a letter to the EPA in opposition.
"Jumping the gun to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste would actually be environmentally detrimental," Krancer wrote. "We have particular concern on that front here in Pennsylvania, since it would block the use of coal ash for beneficial reuse for such uses as, among other things, abandoned mine reclamation and acid mine drainage remediation."
But lawyers say using coal ash to reclaim unlined mines is just mixing two wastes together and calling it clean.
"Dumping coal ash onto unlined gob piles is not a solution to mine drainage pollution and isn’t fair to communities living near these sites," said Gobeille. "It doesn’t make sense to ship the same toxic waste Pennsylvania acknowledges is a threat to health and the environment at the Little Blue Run impoundment to an unlined mine dump and call it beneficial."
Despite the state’s struggle to handle the billions of gallons of waste produced by coal plants, state officials are doubling down on fossil fuels and demonizing anyone who parts company with them.
In June, Gov. Corbett (R-PA) issued a statement in response to President Obama’s climate change proposal, calling it "not only a war on coal, as suggested by a White House climate adviser, but also a war on jobs."
The governor also recently spoke at a shale gas industry conference in Pittsburgh, where he similarly focused on fracking jobs rather than public health impacts. "The opponents of drilling have really become what I would call economic change deniers," he told the crowd.
Of course, the question remains whether, decades from now when the jobs are largely gone, the accumulated waste from both fracking and coal ash will still be plaguing the state and its residents.
In the meantime, the wastewater from both industries continues to flow.
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
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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