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Toxic Coal Ash Pours into Lake Michigan
A partial retaining bluff collapse Oct. 31 at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant in Wisconsin sent toxic coal ash spewing into Lake Michigan. This collapse comes just weeks after the U.S. House voted to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from protecting Americans from coal ash.
In response, Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign issued the following statement:
"The EPA has been trying to enact national protections to stop this kind of disastrous spill from happening again, ever since the TVA disaster in 2008, and our Congress has been blocking them every step of the way. As a result, communities across the nation remain at risk and unprotected. This spill in the Great Lakes is a tragic reminder of why the status quo is not good enough. As long as Congress interferes, spills like this are going to happen, and dozens of communities are at risk. Congress needs to back off and allow the EPA to finalize strong protections.
"In 2008 we witnessed first-hand how a lack of strong national protections leaves the job in the hands of state regulators that lack the will and ability to protect communities from coal ash incidents. Since the TVA disaster, industry groups have been lobbying hard to block the EPA from establishing strong federal protections, arguing, they say, that states are doing a fine job regulating coal ash. Just weeks ago, at the urging of We Energies and others in the coal industry, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the EPA from enacting strong national protections, thereby allowing states to continue the status quo that led to this disastrous collapse. This bill, called the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (S.1751) is now before the Senate for consideration.
"This spill shows that states are not protecting our health and our environment from cancer-causing coal ash, and as long as the EPA fails to act there will be more coal ash spills. "This collapse is particularly troublesome because We Energies has known for years that its management of coal ash was a threat to human health. They have even been providing bottled water to neighbors who have contaminated wells.
"The Senate should immediately stop work on its bill to block the EPA from protecting Americans from toxic coal ash, and our Senators should urge the EPA to finalize its rulemaking process that began in 2009, received hundreds of thousands of comments in support, and has still not been finalized because of industry pressure.
"We want to thank the first responders, cleanup and safety workers for their courage in helping to clean up this mess. We are very grateful that no one appears to have been injured. Unfortunately, residents of Southeast Wisconsin have been victims of We Energies negligence for years. The burning of coal is a public health menace. This incident underscores that as long as we are still mining and burning coal someone somewhere is paying the price."
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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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