It has happened again; yet another coal related environmental disaster. Yesterday, in Wisconsin, thousands of tons of coal ash, mud, and industrial equipment suddenly spilled into Lake Michigan when a bluff collapsed. This event follows a Republican-controlled House of Representatives bill passed two weeks ago that prevents the EPA from protecting Americans from coal ash pollution; this bill was heavily funded by industry lobbyists.
Reaction from yesterday’s event evokes memories of past coal related disasters; most recently, we saw the danger of coal mining, when a mine collapse in West Virginia killed 29 workers. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States in four decades. In 2008 we saw the environmental damage coal can do when a disaster similar to yesterday’s occurred. A dike broke at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Coal Plant in Tennessee, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of wet coal ash into local rivers and streams. The spill was the worst environmental disaster of its kind in United States history. Several weeks later, another smaller spill occurred in Alabama at a different TVA operated coal plant. But, with so much coal ash spilling into waterways, where is it all coming from?
During the combustion stage at a coal plant, electrostatic precipitators collect fine particles that rise in the flues; these particles are known as fly ash. After combustion is complete, bottom ash from the furnace is collected and combined with the fly ash to create coal ash. Coal ash is stored at the power plant in wet settlement basins, put into landfills, or recycled via input into other products such as Portland cement; though the former only comprises 43% of coal ash disposal.
Environmental concerns over coal ash stem from the high concentration of heavy metals which are harmful to all members of the ecological community. Some of the most harmful contaminants include mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium. These contaminants can enter ecosystems in a variety of ways, most commonly, dry coal ash is distributed onto land and water by wind currents. Dry ash distributed on land can seep through soil and contaminate ground water sources. In more catastrophic cases, settlement basin infrastructure can fail and lead to the release of large quantities of pollutants directly into local water sources. Indeed, no water source is safe from coal ash.
Scientific studies have shown an increasingly strong correlation between coal plant proximity to water, both surface and ground sources, and coal ash contamination. Shockingly, politicians seem to be okay with this reality.
The House of Representative’s decision a fortnight ago proves that policy makers are content to let coal companies take advantage of Americans and our environment. When will Americans become fed up with coal? The events in Wisconsin should remind Americans that no coal plant or mine is impervious to disaster and neither is any natural resource. Yesterday’s disaster could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Lake Michigan, a water source already on the brink of collapse from the effects of industrial pollution, invasive species, and expanding anoxic zone. In all of this doom and gloom, there is some good news; as Americans we have the tools to end this abuse. In addition to having the ability to call or write our congress members, we have the resources at hand to make informed decisions about who we’re voting into office and keep tabs on elected official’s voting records. Don’t let the injustices continue, on November 8th, go out and vote, and get coal out of our air and water.
Photo Credit: blog.nwf.org/wildlifepromise/files/2010/10/toxic-coal-ash-spills-photo-007.jpg