Norway's central bank announced on Wednesday that the Norwegian Government's Pension Fund, worth $900 billion, will no longer invest in Duke Energy.
This decision is the result of an investigation by the Council on Ethics for the pension fund, which found that Duke Energy's failure to adequately respond to its leaking coal ash impoundments in North Carolina constituted "an unacceptable risk of severe environmental damage."
Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River near Eden, North Carolina in February 2014. The spill was the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.Waterkeeper Alliance
Based on its assessment, the council recommended that Duke Energy be excluded from the fund on ethical grounds. Nearly 4.7 million Duke shares and bonds, valued at $545 million, have been sold by the Norwegian Pension Fund.
In May 2015, I presented data and information to the Norwegian Parliament and Council on Ethics about the extensive and ongoing water pollution from Duke Energy coal ash ponds, advocating that they sell Duke Energy stocks for ethical reasons.
Waterkeeper recently sent a data packet to Norway emphasizing that Duke had not stopped ongoing leaks of heavy metals into drinking water supplies and plans to leave 70 percent of its coal ash in leaking ponds in North Carolina.
I am thrilled that the Council on Ethics determined that Duke's abysmal performance and severe environmental risk still posed by Duke Energy's leaking ash ponds warranted a special divestiture.
Duke Energy Coal Ash Ponds Contaminate Wells, Residents Told Not to Drink the Water http://t.co/9wN7W69hE3 @BeyondCoal @dirtyenergy— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1429840207.0
Duke Energy joins the list of many companies whose performance is so unacceptable to the Council of Ethics that they are black-listed as unsuitable for investment by one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds.
Waterkeeper Alliance will continue to present to major institutional shareholders of coal companies to inform them of the unacceptable environmental risk of leaking ash ponds into drinking water supplies. Until this industry finally stops its recalcitrant and illegal behavior, we will continue to advocate for divestment from these major polluters all over the world.
For four years, Waterkeeper Alliance and our North Carolina Riverkeepers have been locked in a pitched battle with Duke Energy to force the irresponsible company to clean up its dangerous, illegally polluting ash ponds which we call toxic ash holes. In 2009, I traveled to Raleigh to meet with the Aquifer Protection Section of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DENR). My hope was to find an ally who had a plan to address the 14 coal ash ponds sites in NC. Every one of these coal ash ponds were contaminating ground water at levels that exceeded state standards. I was hopeful that DENR would be an ally and work with us.
Waterkeeper Alliance was at the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh, NC on Wednesday March 5, with a whole lot of North Carolina voters and tax payers to demand clean up of Duke Energy’s toxic ash holes. Photo Credit: Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance
In meetings with Ted Bush, Debra Watts, Betty Wilcox and others at DENR about their plans to require clean up of toxic ash holes; I asked them about specific provisions in North Carolina groundwater law which required Duke and Progress Energy to:
- immediately notify the division of the activity that has resulted in the increase and the contaminant concentration levels;
- take immediate action to eliminate the source or sources of contamination;
- submit a report to the director assessing the cause, significance and extent of the violation; and
- implement an approved corrective action plan for restoration of the groundwater quality in accordance with a schedule 9
After I left the meeting I knew that on all four counts, DENR had failed to require the utilities to do what was mandated by North Carolina law. There were no plans for immediate action to eliminate the source of contamination even though DENR knew the toxic ash holes had been contaminating ground water for years. There were no reports and no corrective action plans. DENR just blithely ignored the law and had no plans to make either Duke or Progress clean up the problem. My hopes for DENR as an ally for justice, were totally quashed at this point.
So Waterkeeper Alliance and the North Carolina Riverkeepers got busy educating the people of North Carolina that Duke and Progress Energy’s toxic ash holes were contaminating North Carolina water from the mountains to the sea. My first sampling trip to quantify the extent of the contamination was in 2010 with French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson. Our testing found water, sediment and fish contaminated with coal ash toxins in the French Broad River right below the Asheville coal ash pond discharge. Then our Catawba Riverkeeper, Sam Perkins began sampling illegal leaks from the Riverbend’s toxic ash holes. A short while later, I spent two days with Kemp Burdette, our Cape Fear Riverkeeper sampling Sutton Lake for coal ash contamination.
By October of 2012 we had gathered enough evidence to know for certain that Duke’s toxic ash holes were contaminating both groundwater and surface water across the state. We also knew DENR was not going to do its job of protecting the people and waterways of NC from that contamination. Therefore we asked the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) to represent us and begin filing legal challenges under both state and federal law to compel Duke and DENR to clean up the contamination.
DJ Gerken was the first SELC lawyer to answer our call. He and his colleagues in the Asheville SELC office undertook a comprehensive review of the very same groundwater law I reviewed with DENR in 2009. They came to the same conclusion I did. North Carolina law plainly said that immediate action to eliminate the source of contamination was required; so on Oct. 10, 2012, DJ Gerken and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a petition on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, French Broad Riverkeeper, Cape Fear Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club asking the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission to direct DENR to do its job and compel Duke and Progress Energy to clean up their toxic ash holes.
Our first North Carolina coal ash legal action was met with unified opposition by Duke Energy and DENR. They teamed up against us and argued before the EMC and later in front of Judge Ridgeway in 2013 under the McCrory administration that our interpretation of North Carolina law was wrong. Duke’s spokesperson, Erin Culbert repeatedly attempted to denigrate the data we collected and our use of Duke’s own ground water monitoring data as emotion. Specifically she said, “These special interest groups rely on emotion, not facts, to advance their mission to phase out coal. They will not be satisfied with anything less than a complete excavation of ash from our sites.”
When Duke Energy could not deny the fact that their illegally leaking ash holes were contaminating North Carolina ground water and surface water with a whole stew of toxic heavy metals, they used the despicable tactic of shooting the messenger. They accused us of using “emotion, not facts” even though for four years Waterkeepers had been consistently presenting facts to DENR, news reporters and the public.
Yesterday, Duke and DENR’s four year failure to do what is required by North Carolina law and ignoring the unified voice of the all the Waterkeepers in North Carolina finally hit a brick wall. Judge Ridgway looked at facts and the law, not emotion. In a landmark decision, he agreed with the Waterkeepers, Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
He found that both DENR and EMC were wrong to shield Duke Energy from immediate action to clean up their toxic ash holes and that they “erred as a matter of law.” Specifically he said, “It is plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the regulation for the EMC to interpret the 2L Rule to require or permit anything other than ‘immediate action to eliminate the source or sources of contamination.’”
Waterkeeper Alliance calls on Duke Energy and DENR to stop wasting time and do what we have asked you to do over and over again for the last four years—take immediate action to clean up all 37 of North Carolina’s leaking coal ash ponds. Four years of whining, making excuses and doing nothing is enough. It is past time for you take responsibility and clean up all the illegal, water polluting ash holes before we have another catastrophe like the Dan River disaster.
Check out these three galleries giving a photographic overview of the Duke Energy coal ash spill:
Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.
In the wake of what may be the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history, Waterkeeper Alliance deployed a disaster response team to assess the damage and monitor remediation efforts by Duke Energy and the of North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The team, which included staff from Waterkeeper Alliance, Yadkin Riverkeeper and Catawba Riverkeeper, took to the air, land and water to track the situation at the spill site and downstream on the Dan River. Paddling in kayaks to the spill site, team members collected samples of water that are being analyzed for heavy metals and other pollutants found in coal ash.
The spill began the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 2 when a stormwater pipe broke underneath the 27-acre primary pond and drained to the Dan River. Although state regulators and Duke Energy scrambled to get the spill under control on Sunday, they waited more than 24 hours before notifying the public of the spill on Monday evening. By then, an estimated 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water had dumped into the Dan River, a public drinking water supply for downstream communities like Danville, VA. Tuesday late afternoon, more than 48 hours after the spill was discovered, thick, dark gray toxic coal ash sludge continued to flow out of the pipe into the river.
Toxic coal ash sludge continued to flow out of the pipe Tuesday afternoon, more than 48 hours after the spill was discovered:
Paddling in kayaks to the spill site, team members collected samples of water that are being analyzed for heavy metals and other pollutants found in coal ash:
Stormwater pipe spewing coal ash into the Dan River:
On Tuesday afternoon, the Waterkeeper team discovered that the Dan River had turned completely gray as it mixed with the spilled coal ash waste. The pollution plume continues to move downstream into Virginia where public drinking water providers are “treating" the water drawn from the river to remove the pollutants before piping it to families and businesses. In what would appear to be a premature moment of celebration, Danville Utilities issued a press release Monday evening with the headline "Danville Utilities successfully treats ash spill into Dan River." On Tuesday evening, however, the utility had changed its tone, updating its statement and admitting that it had not even received water sample results until Tuesday evening.
As rain began to fall on Tuesday evening in the area of the spill, Waterkeeper's aerial and marine investigations discovered that Duke has still not constructed any containment systems to stop more ash from entering the river. Duke initially reported the spill volumes of 50,000 to 82,000 tons and up to 27 million gallons.
After Waterkeepers initiated enforcement actions for illegal coal ash water pollution at two Duke Energy coal plants in North Carolina last year, the state filed lawsuits accusing Duke of illegal pollution discharges from leaks in its coal ash ponds at all 14 of its coal-fired power plants in the state of North Carolina. This includes Duke's Dan River Steam Station in Eden, NC, about 30 miles north of Greensboro. Duke stopped generating electricity at the coal plant in 2012, however the ash remains impounded at the site.
While Duke continues to drag its feet and the state of North Carolina declines to require meaningful action, utilities in South Carolina have settled enforcement actions by Waterkeepers to clean up these dangerous ponds. “Why should South Carolinians receive better water protection than North Carolinians?" asked Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins.
Yesterday afternoon, Duke Energy reported that it spilled between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River near Eden, NC. To put the volume in perspective, the spill is the equivalent of 413 to 677 rail cars of wet coal ash poured into a public drinking water source. The spill is located on a stretch of the Dan River between Eden, NC and Danville, VA. An estimated 22 million gallons of coal ash could already be in the Dan River moving downstream.
Equally disturbing is that neither Duke Energy nor any of the government regulators issued a press release and informed the public about this massive spill until 24 hours after it was discovered. If a freight train full of this toxic waste had derailed, there would have been immediate notification and quick news coverage in order to inform and protect the public. The delay in reporting this spill is inexcusable.
A security guard who noticed unusually low water in the ash pond at the shuttered coal plant led to the discovery of the spill. This means most of the water had escaped and contaminated the river before anyone at Duke noticed.
Upon investigation, Duke discovered that a 48-inch stormwater pipe underneath the unlined 27-acre, 155-million-gallon ash pond broke Sunday afternoon and drained tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and water into the Dan River.
How could they have missed such a large volume of waste spewing out of their ash pond? Especially since the town of Danville, VA withdraws drinking water just 6 miles downstream.
This coal ash spill appears to be the third-largest in U.S. history. In 2008, a billion gallons of ash slurry spilled at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Tennessee.
In 2009, Duke Energy was warned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that its 53-year old Dan River ash pond dams were a high hazard. EPA inspections in September of 2009 found them leaking and sloughing sizable sections off the dam.
But that's not all the EPA inspectors found at the Dan River plant. They also found these mangled, dilapidated and poorly maintained storm water pipes with chain link fence falling down on top of them.
And some stumps in the ash pond dams where they are prone to rot and allow coal ash to leak:
Given this history at the site, should we be surprised that a trainload of waste suddenly cascaded through an old storm drain before anyone at Duke Energy even noticed?
Waterkeeper Alliance and our local Waterkeepers in North Carolina have filed legal action against Duke Energy over leaking coal ash ponds, which have been poisoning groundwater and surface water across the Tar Heel state for decades. The state of North Carolina then sued Duke over ash handling at all of its North Carolina coal plants.
While utilities in South Carolina have settled Waterkeeper lawsuits and started cleaning up their leaking ash ponds, Duke has refused to responsibly address their ongoing contamination of public water supplies. Now their epic failure to do the right thing for the integrity and safety of public water has reached an all-time low. If Duke would step up and close all their ash ponds, many downstream communities would be safer. Waterkeeper Alliance urges Duke to put the safety of the public and our waterways first.
The Dan River coal ash spill is the latest in a series of wake-up calls about this mounting public health and environmental crisis.
Do you take sugar in your morning coffee? How about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol?
A large spill of a chemicals used to remove impurities from coal occurred Thursday in Charleston, WV, contaminating the Elk River less than a mile upstream of the intake for the state’s largest drinking water treatment plant. As many as 300,000 West Virginia residents in nine counties have been told not to bathe, cook or wash clothes using their tap water, and numerous schools, hospitals and nursing homes, restaurants and other businesses are without water. President Obama and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency today.
For some, the warnings may have come too late. The Charleston Area Medical Center reported this morning that it had already begun to treat people complaining of contamination-related illnesses. By late Friday, The Guardian reported that 671 people were so ill that they called into the poison control center with reports of vomiting, dizziness, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, reddening skin, itches and rashes.
Responding to citizen reports about a licorice odor in downtown Charleston, staff from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Air Quality discovered the foaming agent 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, leaking from a 35,000-gallon storage tank into the Elk River. The facility is owned by Freedom Industries a subsidiary of Etowah River Terminal, LLC. The spill had not been reported by the company. It’s still unclear how much of the chemical spilled into the river or how long the advisory will last.
Convenience and grocery stores have sold out of water. After reports that people had begun looting bottled water, armed National Guard troops had to escort and stand guard over a truck carrying clean water to a distribution point set up in the Charleston Civic Center.
“It’s like a zombie apocalypse here,” said Charleston resident Barbara Paxton. “The scary thing is at 10:30 a.m. yesterday, I read online that there was a smell in the area, and they were ‘investigating.’ I did not know until 5 in the evening that I was not supposed to use the water.”
According to Cindy Rank, West Virginia Headwaters Waterkeeper:
“[w]hat is … astounding is that the chemicals leaking from this facility are used in the coal washing process at sites throughout West Virginia—sites where nearby communities which depend on local sources of surface and ground water are frequently told the chemicals being used are harmless, or [no worse than] commonly used household products. People in these communities live in fear that accidental releases of such chemicals will destroy the water in wells and springs they use daily and it appears their fears are well founded. This situation unacceptable."
“Clean water is essential for life. We cannot cut corners in ensuring that our drinking water supply is protected," said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. "There is too much at stake—our health, our economic stability, our confidence in water security. We hope that once the immediate crisis phase is over, serious thought will go into meaningful reforms and investment in protecting our rivers and streams that are our lifeline.”
The question remains, who will foot the bill for the cleanup and the economic losses caused by the spill?
Residents are being told that they are at risk, but solutions seem limited to allowing the river to “flush” the chemical out of the area.
“It’s in my hot water tank. Am I going to have an extremely large water bill because I’ve got to let everything run? And if it does run, is there going to be residue in my pipes?,” asked Paxton. She is not only concerned for her community, but for what may be happening downstream. “My concern is that it’s the Elk River, Ohio River, Mississippi River, ocean. What are they telling people downstream?”
Our continuing dependence on fossil fuels as a source of “cheap” energy has many costs that are not reflected in our power bills and prices at the pump. In addition to billions of dollars in environmental damage, the Charleston spill illustrates another example of the coal industry imposing the costs of its inherently dirty practices on Americans, not to mention poisoning the water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people. This spill demonstrates yet again that “clean coal” is a dirty lie.
“At times like these assurances that public water supplies are guaranteed safer and cleaner than the local streams, springs and wells many of us rely on daily sound as empty as the wind whistling through the trees,” said Rank.
Will a death toll of 900,000 be the body count it takes for the public to finally say enough, already? Or will it also take another set of grisly photographs of maimed bodies, deformed skulls, misshapen mouths and twisted spines?
The breaking news out of Wilmington, NC today has both.
Unfortunately, this latest episode is not a single, isolated incident. It is but the latest attack by a serial killer that has taken thousands of lives all across the country, on what has become a nearly 30-year killing spree. The culprit is notorious; the whodunit was solved decades ago. Yet, authorities allow the mayhem to go on, so the death and destruction continues unabated.
A new study confirms that Duke Energy’s toxic coal ash pollution is killing more than 900,000 fish and deforming thousands more each year in Lake Sutton, a popular fishing destination just outside of Wilmington, NC. Dr. Dennis Lemly, Research Associate Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University and a leading expert on selenium poisoning conducted the study. He analyzed more than 1,400 fish from the lake and found disturbing mutations of the heads, mouths, spines and tails in several species of fish. Here are just seven of the 18 photos of deformed fish that were included in the study report.
Facial and spinal deformities in baby fish affect their ability to eat and swim. Many young fish die before reaching maturity; long before someone trying to put supper on the table can catch them. One of the many jaw-dropping revelations in the study was the fact that no juvenile largemouth bass (less than 3 inches long) were found in two separate collection events at Lake Sutton. In contrast, many young bass were found in a single collection event at the non-contaminated reference lake that served as a baseline for the study. The most recent fish population assessment of Lake Sutton by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission noted that largemouth bass were in "poor condition," declining 50 percent in both abundance and size between 2008 and 2010.
The value of lost natural resources at Lake Sutton goes well into the millions of dollars each year. The replacement cost of the lost fish is more than $4.5 million per year according to the study. If North Carolina replaced all fish killed by selenium pollution over the last 25 years in Lake Sutton, taxpayers would face a bill of more than $112 million. Duke Energy owned coal plants have been among the most notorious and prolific fish killers in the U.S. since 1976. See table below.
The U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA), the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and Duke Energy have known for decades that selenium contamination from coal-fired power plants is a monumental fish killer. Nationwide, there are 22 other cases where coal-fired power plants caused severe damage to fisheries in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The total estimated cost of all these fishery damage cases is $ 2.32 billion.
After Duke obliterated 17 species of fish in Belews Lake in the 1970’s, steps should have been taken to prevent selenium poisoning from killing more fish. Sadly, that didn’t happen and once coal-fired power plants operators saw Duke get away with it, the copycat serial killing of fish continued year after year.
Fortunately, the EPA has proposed two long overdue regulatory updates that could go a long way to addressing this serious problem, if the final rules are sufficiently strong. They are the stalled coal ash rule that was proposed 3 years ago and the coal power plant toxic water pollution rule that was just proposed earlier this year. It is important to note that both rules propose weaker options that will not fix the selenium fish kill problem. Only option 5 of the coal water pollution rule and the hazardous waste classification in the coal ash rule will have any chance of making the killing stop.
Lake Sutton is the 23rd public fishery to be severely damaged by toxic discharges from a coal-fired power plant. If you want to put your foot down and say: enough, already, we won't allow this egregious toxic pollution any more, then take action here.
Tell U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to move forward with the strongest coal ash and coal water pollution rules possible because it is time to put an end to serial killing coal-fired power plants.
Imagine for a minute that for generations, you and your family lived on ancestral lands abundant with wildlife and a beautiful river running through it. Like every youngster born in your family, one of your elders took you out to the river and patiently taught you how to swim and fish in the warm summer sun. As a teenager you escaped to the river with your friends to eat junk food, drink your first beer and do cannonballs off the dock. When you met that someone special you took them to the overlook with the full moon shining on the gently rippling water to propose. Then when your youngsters were old enough, you took them to the river and the cycle started all over again. Until finally you grew old and spent your last years in a misty fog reliving the happy memories from a lifetime of experiences spent with friends, family and the river.
Photo Credit: Dot Griffith
Then imagine a big international coal company hundreds of kilometers away ruined the possibility of those traditions being continued by your grandchildren. They took away the very heritage and customs that united your family through eons because they let one of their giant coal slurry dams full of arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and selenium fail. Instead of stopping the dam from breaking, they allowed a 1 billion liter toxic tidal wave of black slurry to poison your ancestral river. Then imagine that your government failed to tell you about the disaster and compounded that failure by waiting 19 days before they ordered the coal company to clean it up.
Unfortunately, this is not an imaginary nightmare for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. This is now the devastating reality they face in the wake of Canada’s largest coal slurry spill at the hands of Sherritt International. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the First Nation is rightfully furious. The loss they are facing as Sherritt’s toxic coal plume moves inexorably to Fort Chipewyan is much more than the loss of the ability to fish or swim with their children. It is the loss of their heritage. How can anyone put a value on that or mitigate it? Yesterday they issued this press release calling for Minister McQueen and Gerry Protti to be fired for failing to do their job:
That Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) are seriously concerned with government inaction regarding the Sheritt Coal slurry spill that occurred on Oct. 31 resulting in close to a billion litres of contaminant entering tributaries of the Athabasca River and eventually the Athabasca River itself. The Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator waited three weeks to issue a clean up order and release information about the contents of the spill.
“We are furious with the Alberta Energy Regulator and governments for the lack of response for the largest spill in Canadian history. We are asking for the resignation of Minister McQueen and Gerry Protti for failing to do their job. For three weeks we have been living in uncertainty about the safety and level of contamination of our water systems. For us, it’s not just about our drinking water, it’s about our rights and culture,” stated Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
The Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality in Fort Chipewyan decided only yesterday they would shut down the water intake at the water treatment facility and work with Sheritt to deliver clean, safe potable water to members of communities along the path of the plume.
Bruce Maclean from Maclean Environmental Consulting, a company that works with local First Nations, raised some serious concerns and stated, “Water quality data from the first days of the spill indicate many contaminants of concern to be above CCME guidelines, some 70 times above the guidelines. This includes PAHs, cadmium, arsenic, lead, selenium, silver, thallium and even uranium. These numbers and contaminants represent real danger to human health and associated drinking water.”
Maclean also commented on the long term impacts of the settling of this sediment load and associated contaminants on fall spawning fish. “It will be difficult to assess without some serious sampling efforts, some of which may need to take place in the spring. We can assume that survival of fish eggs in the path of the plume will be compromised.”
The Nation asserts that the government failure to protect and safeguard the Athabasca river, the environment and eco-systems, equates to a failure to uphold the Canadian Constitution and Treaty and Aboriginal rights in the region. Treaty and Aboriginal rights to hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering rights are uniquely protected under the Canadian constitution.
“Government and industry continually ignore that our rights, our culture and our people rely on safe, clean eco-systems and waterways to continue our way of life,” stated Lorraine Hoffman, councillor for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “We can’t keep the moose, caribou, bison and fish from the contaminated plume as it travels downstream. This spill is just another example of both Alberta and Canada’s failure to protect the interests of not only First Nations, but the interests of all Canadians. Water is life, no matter who you are or where you are.”
Last year the federal government made sweeping changes to numerous environmental protection acts, however the Athabasca River was one of few rivers, lakes and oceans that maintained federal protected under the Navigable Protection Act. The ACFN is now questioning why the federal and provincial governments are allowing the continued abuse of this river system. To date there has been no contact with federal agencies about the implications of this spill.
“We have been raising concerns about the lack of safety and protection of the river and environment for years. This summer Dr. Timoney released a report Environmental Incidents in Northeastern Alberta’s Bitumen Sands Region outlining 9,262 industry incidents on the Athabasca river and how the government is failing to enforce environmental regulations. Now, the Athabasca is subject to the largest coal mine spill in Canadian history and it has taken governments three weeks to show any concern. Where is the federal protection? Something is seriously wrong with this picture,” stated Chief Adam.
In light of the new data, the Nation feels that a formal review of the official communication protocols around environmental disasters is needed. The huge lag time in reporting and overall lack of transparency and leadership has led the ACFN to take matters into their own hands. The ACFN will be launching their own sampling before, during and after the plume passes through their community.
For more information please contact Eriel Deranger, ACFN Communications Coordinator 780-903-6598
If you stand in solidarity with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, you can join their call to action by contacting Alberta Premier Alison Redford at [email protected] via email. Or by phone:
- Calling from metro-Edmonton: 780-427-2251
- Calling long-distance in Alberta: dial 310-0000 toll-free
- Calling from outside Alberta: 780-427-2711 connects you to the Government of Alberta Call Centre
Or by mail: Office of the Premier Room 307, Legislature Building 10800-97 Avenue Edmonton, Alberta T5K 2B6.
Thank goodness for Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. After 14 days of stonewalling by the Alberta Government, he released some of the water test results from the gigantic 1 billion litre coal slurry spill into the Athabasca River from the Obed Mountain coal mine near Hinton, Alberta. Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal started her incredible breaking news story on Nov. 14 with the following:
“Mercury levels nine times higher than normal. Levels of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons four times the allowed standard for Canadian drinking water. Those are the kinds of disturbing test results Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, is seeing as he monitors a huge plume of coal mine waste water currently oozing down the Athabasca River. Our overriding concern is the safety of the drinking water, says Talbot. We're advising people, 'Don't draw water as the plume is going by.'"
The information provided by Dr. Talbot stands in stark contrast to previous statements by the Alberta Government and Sherritt International, who owns the mine. The headlines in statements issued by the Alberta Government on Nov. 2 and Nov. 4 called Canada’s largest coal slurry spill a “sediment release.” The Nov. 4 statement went on to say, “Sediment was released from an onsite water storage pond. The pond contains high levels of suspended solids, which include such things as clay, mud, shale and coal particles.” Neither release mentioned the presence of toxic mercury or cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In fact, the Nov. 4 statement went out of its way to mention that “…water sample tests do not indicate any health risks.”
How long did Alberta Environment think they would get away with their failure to disclose critical information about toxics? Especially when you consider that the Canadian National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) contains public records that list tons of toxic waste dumped at the Obed Mine site. Mining Watch Canada reports that alarming amounts of arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese, mercury, zinc and PAH were reportedly dumped into Obed Mine’s containment ponds and provided this table of NPRI reported information:
When provided with the table of these pollutants, Dr. Greg Goss, an environmental toxicology professor and researcher at the University of Alberta, said:
“The coal slurry spill will be devastating to streams in the area for a long time. I am outraged that we have heard nothing from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). They are responsible for enforcing the Fisheries Act. Despite the recently stripped down Fisheries Act, this is a clear situation where the act still applies and we should expect a response from the DFO. There are cut-throat trout and native bull trout in the streams that were impacted by the spill. These are species that fall under the new recreational, commercial and aboriginal interest designation of the Fisheries Act.”
Jule Asterisk, a director of the Keepers of the Athabasca, said:
"It is unbelievable in this day and age, with the known pressures of growth requiring constant vigilance and monitoring, that a containment pond was allowed to fail so dramatically. The Obed coal mine was 'suspended' just last year for remediation. In any closure/suspension/remediation plan, there is an inspection schedule for the facility. Where were the inspectors? Both Sherritt International and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development have failed their due diligence in this case. The pond had a complete failure. One billion litres was allowed to blast 25 kilometres through trout streams to the Athabasca River before anyone noticed? Now, after being told the release was non-toxic, we are finding out differently. The government of Alberta and that of Canada now has another black eye in international opinion. Have we become a developing country that has no control of our environmental protection? Environmental care is not just about shutting down facilities, environmental care is about keeping people and our environment safe, one of the main reasons governments exist. From now on, we must have careful monitoring and full disclosure of industrial hazards.”
"We are not surprised to learn of the toxic nature of coal tailings spills," says environmental lawyer and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson. "The lack of reporting outlines our disappointment with how government and industry handled this major spill. We now expect the full force of the law will be brought to bear on the polluter to ensure our waters and communities are protected."
Photo credit: Alberta Environment
"Albertans have entrusted our government to protect our waters and public health. This needs to happen with actions not words," says Glenn Isaac, North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper.
The Keepers of the Athabasca, Waterkeepers Canada and Waterkeeper Alliance are renewing our request to Alberta Environment to release all the water test results related to the Obed Mountain coal slurry spill. The Alberta government is 12 days overdue on its Nov. 2 promise to release these test results to the public. If you think it is high time for all the water test results to be released, you can make your own appeal by contacting Jessica Potter with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development at [email protected] or 780-427-8636 and toll free within Alberta at 310-0000.
A scary thing happened on Halloween near Hinton, Alberta. Canada had what may be the largest coal slurry spill in its history when a dam failed at the Obed Mountain coal mine and 264 million gallons (1 billion litres) of waste water contaminated at least 25 kilometers of the Athabasca river. Ten municipalities located downstream of the spill were warned not to withdraw raw drinking water from the Athabasca river until it was deemed safe. Residents were also warned not to let their animals drink water from the river.
The federal government dispatched officials from Environment Canada as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada to investigate whether violations of the Canadian Fisheries Act occurred as a result of the massive dam failure and subsequent contamination of the Athabasca River. Critics are beginning to lash out at the government response. Rachel Notley, a Legislative Assembly representative and lawyer wants to know why it took five days for the Alberta provincial government to issue warnings to communities downstream. Others are concerned about conflicting government statements that the spill was relatively harmless. They say if the spill was harmless, why were they warned not to use the Athabasca River as a source of drinking water for municipalities and livestock?
“For the communities living downstream with years of toxic waste, this coal slurry spill is adding to the cumulative effects they are left to deal with," said Jesse Cardinal, coordinator for the Keepers of the Athabasca. "Fort Chipewywan recently got a new water treatment system which is to be one of the best in North America, and even still, after hearing of this coal spill, are once again, starting to fear drinking the water.”
Two days after the spill, the Alberta Environment spokesperson Robyn Cochrane said in this Global News Canada interview, “Initial water samples are currently being analyzed by independent labs and will be reviewed by Alberta Health Services and Environment and Sustainable Resource Development staff. Once we have these results, we will make them public.”
Water test results were expected on Nov. 3. To date, Alberta Environment still has not made any water test results public. If the preliminary water results “indicate that the water is not health-hazardous” as Environment Alberta spokesperson Jessica Potter said in this news story, why not release them? What are they hiding? And more importantly, why have they reneged on their promise to make the water test results public?
"If, as the vague Alberta Government statements claim, the tailings are 'harmless to health' why are they unwilling to share them with their citizen shareholders. If they are only 'coal dust' then show us the data." said Harvey Scott, director of the Keepers of the Athabasca.
"We are concerned that the tailings ponds may contain such things as high concentrations of selenium which can be very toxic for native fish reproduction. The stream that transferred the pond effluent to the Athabasca is a known fishery for several important native species. Will its reproductive capacity be seriously affected? Settling pond flocculants can be deleterious to fish reproduction - has that been assessed? Indigenous peoples and other Canadians depend upon these fisheries to provide them partial livelihoods and recreational fishing. How will this tailings release affect that? The Keepers of the Athabasca and other Athabasca River Basin residents expect their governments to protect their ecosystems. We demand to see the actual sampling data. What do they and industry have to hide if in fact the effluent is 'harmless' as their press spokespeople say. Just give us the data."
Release of the water test results are critical since it would appear the Obed Mountain coal slurry spill is one of the largest in North American history. The U. S. government coal impoundment location and information system has a comprehensive list of the historical coal slurry spills from coal mines in the U.S. Here is their list of the top five coal spill disasters:
Massey Energy Company
Big Sandy River
Pittston Coal Company
Massey Energy Company
Big Sandy River
Eastover Mining Company
Peabody Coal Company
When compared to these large spills, the spill in Alberta is the second largest. There have been other coal slurry spills in Canada recently, like a small 6,000 gallon coal slurry spill into the Similkameen River two months ago near Princeton, British Colombia. Locals there were very upset that it took days for the mining company to inform them of the spill.
Given the magnitude of Alberta spill, the lack of information provided by Alberta Environment is very troubling. In the wake of the spill, the Edmonton Journal has done the best job investigating and reporting information about the monumental spill and the government response. To its credit, the Edmonton Journal has repeatedly asked Alberta Environment to live up to its Nov. 2 promise to release water test results. And yet none of the data has been made public.
In the large multi-million gallon coal slurry spills in the U.S., there was substantial contamination of the rivers and streams with a toxic stew of pollutants including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals. These spills killed people, damaged property, caused fish kills and long-term damage to aquatic ecosystems that lasted years after the spills.
There were allegations of a toxic cover up of the federal investigation into the largest coal slurry spill in U.S. history. 60 Minutes produced this ground breaking investigative report showing how Jack Spadero, an engineer for the National Mine Health and Safety Academy was fired after he blew the whistle on a white wash investigation into the 300 million gallon coal slurry spill by Massey Energy.
Because the spill in Alberta is one of the largest in North American history and possibly the largest in Canadian history, it is imperative for the Canadian Government to do a full, open and transparent investigation. The fact that the water sample results have not been reported as promised is cause for concern. Does it signal the beginning of a toxic cover up similar to what happened with the largest coal slurry spill in the U.S.?
There are a lot of unanswered questions about the spill in Alberta. For example, what was the timeline of the emergency response by both the coal company and the Canadian government? How long did it take for the spill to be reported and when did government investigators first arrive on the scene? According to reports from Alberta, the massive coal slurry pond was completely drained before government officials responded.
How much time elapsed between the first report of the spill and the deployment of emergency response assets to initiate containment and clean up? For a spill of this magnitude, the coal company should have immediately deployed every available asset to contain the spill to try and prevent waste water from leaving their property, polluting two tributaries and reaching the Athabasca River. Did that happen and when? And if it did, why weren't containment efforts successful? Why was the Athabasca River polluted with coal slurry waste many, many miles downstream of the spill site? What caused the dam to fail and when was it last inspected?
As the satellite image shows below, there are many coal waste ponds at the massive 20 square kilometer Obed Coal mine site. Which one failed? Are any of the other dams slumping, leaking or showing signs of failure?
This is an internationally significant news story. Alberta Environment should stop stonewalling and release information about the impact of the spill. If it doesn’t, it is incumbent upon the Canadian Federal Government to step in and do a full, open and transparent investigation.
"The Athabasca River is a Canadian Heritage River and one of Alberta's most significant because of it's historical, cultural and ecological value," said Glenn Isaac, executive director of North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper.
"Ask any angler, canoeist or hiker who has experienced this area of the Athabasca River. You'll find out that this river has an abundance of fish, clean mountain waters and other natural gifts that are now threatened. The ecological importance of the Athabasca River near our Jasper National Park, cannot be overstated. Riverkeeper will continue to monitor the investigation currently underway," said Isaac.
"The Fisheries Act exists in Canada to safeguard our environment from accidents of this nature. When accidents happen, the Fisheries Act carries serious penalties which must be enforced to punish the polluter and deter similar events in the future," said Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. "We will be watching the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' investigation very closely to ensure our laws are given meaning and force to keep our waters swimmable, drinkable and fishable."
Buriganga Riverkeeper Sharif Jamil and hundreds of his fellow Bangladeshis, including BAPA, the largest civil society platform in Bangladesh for the environment, and the National Committee for Saving Sundarbans (NCSS), are fighting to save the Sundarbans, an irreplaceable world heritage site, from the destruction of a massive new coal-fired power plant. To show the government the size and scale of the opposition, they joined National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports who organized a five-day, 400-kilometer march from Dhaka to Rampal on Tuesday. Their goal is to stop the Rampal coal-fired power plant and all activities that would destroy the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. It was designated as a world heritage site because it supports an exceptional number of rare plants and animals including the world famous and endangered Bengal Tiger.
The Sundarbans are not only critical to the survival of wildlife, they are vitally important to the survival of thousands of Bangladesh’s people because they provide a buffer to storm surges, cyclones and food sources. Bangladesh is widely recognized as one of the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change because it is less than 20 feet above sea level. One of the worst floods in modern history struck the country in September of 1998, killing 1,050 people and making 25 million more homeless. It has been estimated that sea-level rise caused by climate change could result in as many as 30 million climate refugees in Bangladesh. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of human-made carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
“If constructed, the Rampal coal-fired power plant will not only harm a UNESCO world heritage site and much of the irreplaceable wildlife it contains, but will also fuel ever-faster-rising sea levels that will drown the people of Bangladesh," said Jamil. "Millions of peoples’ lives and livelihoods are at stake.”
The proposed massive 1320 MW Rampal coal-fired power plant is a joint venture involving the Indian state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh state-owned Power Development Board (PDB). But the burden of the polluted air, water and waste is not jointly shared. Most of it will be borne by the people of Bangladesh while India gets the power. In an excellent analysis, Rampal Coal-Fired Power Plant: Who Gains, Who Loses, Economics Professor Moshahida Sultana Ritu shows just how bad the project is for the people of Bangladesh. Joining Professor Ritu in providing additional argument against construction of the plant is Professor Anu Muhammad. He wrote a scholarly point-by-point decimation of the shoddy, incomplete and inaccurate environmental impact analysis and summarized his review of the process used to site the coal plant in the Sundarbans as a project of deception and mass destruction.
During the 400-kilometer, five-day march, Jamil and Muhammad, along with thousands of citizens and activists, will voice their concerns over the risks the power plant poses to not just the Sunderban’s health, air, water, land and wildlife but to the very survival of Bangladesh as it faces the worst potential impacts of climate change. Waterkeeper Alliance stands in solidarity with all the people of Bangladesh who are marching this week to protect the Sundarbans and their country’s future.
If you are inspired by their courage we urge you to support the Buriganga Riverkeeper organization and the NCSS. The NCSS was created to oppose the government’s move to set up the power plant in Rampal. Jamil, along with a team of young volunteers, have also decided to go on hunger strikes in several places in the country.
“We are in the process of making a larger platform to initiate a peaceful movement with the local people to save the Sundarbans from the Rampal Project,” said Jamil.
“The Sundarbans may be one of the most inappropriate places in the world to build a polluting coal-fired power plant,” said Waterkeeper Alliance’s International Director Sharon Khan. “It would be like building one on top of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. or at the foot of Uluru in Australia.”
Waterkeeper Alliance calls on conservation organizations all over the world to join the fight to oppose the Rampal coal-fired power plant. The need for international support is urgent because the government of Bangladesh recently announced it would lay the foundation of the power plant on Oct. 22, despite vehement and widespread opposition by environmental activists and other social groups.
Sign the petition to stop the coal-based Rampal power plant and save Sundarban.
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
Any kid can tell you when Harry Potter takes off his invisibility cloak, he goes from invisible to visible in seconds. Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and other environmental leaders came together in Charlotte, NC, Tuesday to pull the cloak of invisibility off of toxic water pollution from coal-fired power plants across the U.S.
Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and Clean Water Action led the carefully planned, highly coordinated release of a hard hitting national report, Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It.
And since seeing is believing, they took five boat loads of reporters and news crews up to a bright orange stream of polluted coal waste flowing into Mountain Island Lake, the drinking water source for more than 800,000 people in Charlotte, Mount Holly and Gastonia.
That one-two punch of a detailed technical report coupled with a trip to see the toxic pollution flowing from a coal-fired power plant into a public drinking water reservoir took the invisibility cloak off this hidden pollution problem.
The story was covered by news media outlets all over the country, from Muskogee, OK, to Florence, AL, to the Charlotte Business Journal to New Bedford, MA. It was was also covered by local news stations in Charlotte who showed a great video of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. taking on the coal industry with his local Catawba Riverkeeper, Sam Perkins, who demonstrated the high volume of pollution from Duke Energy:
The environmental groups have plans to keep the industry from slinking back under the invisibility cloak they have been hiding under for the past 31 years. To help highlight the report’s findings and raise awareness about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) critical new coal plant water pollution standards, many local events will be held across the country.
From a “toxic lemonade stand” in Pennsylvania to a “Miss and Mr. Toxic Water Swimsuit Competition” in Missouri, and from a kayaking trip outside a coal plant in Oklahoma to a fish-less fish fry in Illinois, activists from coast to coast will be calling for the EPA to finalize the strongest possible standards to protect American families from dangerous toxic water pollution.
If you think it is past time for the U.S. to stop the unlimited discharge of arsenic and other poisons in our waterways, tell the EPA to choose option five during the public comment period on the proposed new rules. Help us keep the truth of their pollution visible so it can be stopped.
As I walked through the gates of the primary school in Xiangyang City in Hubei Province with Middle Han Waterkeeper, Yun Jianli, I was greeted by six and seven-year-old voices raised in song. They clapped their hands in time to the rhythm of the songs, waved tinsel-studded pom poms and crayon-colored artwork. The songs and the pictures contained messages about the need for humans to do a much better job of taking care of the Earth by preventing pollution of our air and water.
As I watched these beautiful and talented children sing songs imploring the grown-up stewards of their future to bequeath them a livable planet, I was haunted by the devastating reality of the world they will inherit from us.
In the last four months, pollution levels in China have climbed to levels never before recorded in the history of our planet. More than 1.2 million Chinese per year are dying early due to pollution while birth defects soar. Education officials in the most polluted regions of China have moved beyond educational programs to try to change adult behavior that robs children of the possibility of a healthy life in their own country.
Affluent parents are buying expensive air filters to try to give their children some semblance of a normal life. Schools in the wealthier districts are also installing sophisticated air filtration equipment even as some parents recognize that it won’t be enough to protect their children, so they dream of leaving the country altogether. For the vast majority of Chinese, who have no means of escaping the pollution, athletic fields covered with giant domes might at least allow kids to play soccer or just run and play tag without their lungs burning and filling with high concentrations of particulate matter that cause cancer.
As I journeyed across six provinces of China with Waterkeeper Alliance’s Asia Regional Coordinator Charles Depman earlier this year and met with our Waterkeepers in Hangzhou, Lanzhou, Hefei, Beijing, Dalian and Xiangyang City, we went to cancer villages, investigated pollution and interviewed people about increasing levels of death and disease. The people we talked to moved us deeply.
The basic human right to clean air and water is universal. In order to achieve it in China, a grassroots movement is emerging. It may surprise people outside of China to learn that a people-powered revolution is possible there. And while it isn’t as raucous and rowdy as some civil society shifts in other countries, there are inspiring Chinese success stories to use as a road map.
For example, the people of Qiugang village worked with Green Anhui, the parent organization of the Middle Huai Waterkeeper, to end the pollution from a nearby chemical factory. Documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang captured the story in the academy-award-nominated documentary Warriors of Qiugang. The film poignantly illustrates the courage it took for Chinese villagers to stand in defiance against the status quo. They had a deep desire to see the next generation given the chance of a bright future, and when it was threatened by the deadly effects of pollution it motivated them to risk speaking out and seek the changes they needed.
The Middle Huai Waterkeeper and lawyers at Green Anhui work with citizens and government to solve pollution problems throughout the watershed. So while China’s pollution problems have never been worse, the good news is that a growing number of people are rolling up their sleeves and working together to fight the sources of sickness and disease.
Hundreds of miles away, in Zhejiang Province, the Qiantang Waterkeeper has established an award-winning web-based pollution reporting system that allows mobile phone users to take a picture of water pollution and report its exact location to the Waterkeeper. While I was in China, I got to see how effective that system is at triggering a response.
The polluted water in the photo above comes from coal-fired power plants, cement factories, chemical manufacturers and textile mills, all concentrated in a five kilometer area near Hangzhou, China. By the time the Xian Feng canal empties into the Qiantang River, it is pure black. Villagers report cancer and other diseases are common in almost every family. After we concluded our investigation, the Qiantang River Waterkeeper began creating a long-term plan to clean up the pollution that involves citizens engaging the government to make changes.
Across the country to the west, in arid, water-starved Gansu Province, we accompanied our Upper Yellow River Waterkeeper team to coal-fired power plants and coal mines across the region. We tested air for particulate matter greater than 2.5 micrometers and water for several pollutants.
Air pollutants from coal-fired power plants contain a toxic collection of heavy metals that cause brain and respiratory damage. They include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, manganese and particulate matter 2.5. They are one of the largest contributors to China’s staggering pollution problems.
In the U.S. there are currently about 600 coal-fired power plants. Many of them have been required to install air-pollution-control technology or shut down in an effort to clean up the vast amounts of air and water pollution they produce. In contrast, China has 3,000 coal-fired power plants either built or planned. Most of them do not have technology that eliminates air and water pollutants.
While I was in China last month I joined Kristen McDonald and Zhao Zhong of Pacific Environment for meetings with Nautral Resources Defense Council-China, Greenpeace East Asia and Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. In each of those meetings we discussed strategies to strengthen and build the burgeoning grassroots environmental movement to confront coal pollution in China. In one of those meetings I met Sun Qingwei. A former assistant professor in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sun grew up in a coal miner’s family. He left academia, where he could have enjoyed the security of a university career, to have the freedom to tell the truth about the devastating human toll of coal pollution in China. He has been the lead coal campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia since 2011.
Over the last two years, he has worked to expose the environmental and human health risks of coal mining and use. Growing up in a coal-mining region himself, he has first-hand knowledge of the toll it is taking on communities in his country. His stories provide a stunning and sad portrait of the enormity of the challenge of shifting away from coal consumption in the country that mines and consumes more coal than any other. Waterkeeper Alliance, Pacific Environment, San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club and Wilson Center will host an educational forum with Sun Qingwei in San Francisco on May 7. Join us to hear his powerful stories, see his pictures and learn about these issues facing the people of China.
Pacific Environment, Waterkeeper Alliance and our partners across China are committed to building a successful grassroots movement that will shift China away from coal use towards a more sustainable energy mix. Together we can save China’s beautiful children from a poisoned future.