Coal-Fired Power Plants Shifting Pollution from Air to Water

On the heels of last month's jaw-dropping New York Times expose of widespread water pollution in the U.S., the newspaper just published this follow-up story focusing on one of the culprits: pollution from coal-fired power plants. The NYT story highlights the unfortunate irony of how technologies being used to reduce smokestack pollution into the air result in the toxins being discharged into the water.  As the article states:

So three years ago, when Allegheny Energy decided to install scrubbers to clean the plant's air emissions, environmentalists were overjoyed.  The technology would spray water and chemicals through the plant's chimneys, trapping more than 150,000 tons of pollutants each year before they escaped into the sky.

But the cleaner air has come at a cost.  Each day since the equipment was switched on in June, the company has dumped tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater containing chemicals from the scrubbing process into the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to 350,000 people and flows into Pittsburgh, 40 miles to the north.

"It's like they decided to spare us having to breathe in these poisons, but now we have to drink them instead," said Philip Coleman, who lives about 15 miles from the plant and has asked a state judge to toughen the facility's pollution regulations. "We can't escape."

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.  With more and more coal-burning power plants around the nation moving to reduce their air emissions, more of the nasty stuff caught in the scrubbers is finding its way into our waterways.  So instead of all that pollution emitted through the stacks from the buring of coal for power generation, tougher air pollution laws are indirectly to blame for shifting those toxics into our lakes and rivers.  How does it get there?  Well, what's left at the bottom of the burning stacks is toxic coal ash, much of which ends up being stored on site at the plant either in a "dry" landfill or "wet" sludge pond.  This so-called coal combusion waste -- 130 million tons of which is produced every year -- is known to leak from the landfills into groundwater or spill into rivers when a sludge pond breaks.

That's what happened last year in Tennessee, when a waste pond at the TVA's Kingston power plant burst and spilled over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge into the Emory River and over hundreds of acres downstream.  Several homes in the town of Harriman were damaged or destroyed.  People there are contending with an ongoing cleanup that is estimated by EPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority to cost over $1 billion.

As the NYT points out in its recent investigative story, power plants are the nation's biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastic and paint manufacturing and chemical plants, according to an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.  The EPA projects that by next year, roughly 50 percent of coal-generated electricity in the United States will come from plants that use scrubbers or similar technologies, creating vast new sources of wastewater.  Yet no federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills, the NYT correctly notes.

The EPA is currently considering new regulations governing the disposal of coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal.  As unbelievable as it seems, there exist no federally enforceable, minimum standards for the disposal of coal ash in landfills.  Instead, there is just a patchwork of inadequate and inconsistently enforced state regulations governing the treatment and storage of this dangerous waste.  Not only should EPA regulate coal ash as hazardous waste (for the sake of environmental protection and environmental health), but the agency should also phase out the industrial-sized ponds where a toxic stew of coal ash is contained -- usually alongside or near waterways that provide downstream communities with drinking water.   

No one would question that all Americans have a right to breathe clean air and drink clean water.  It is EPA's job to fulfill this basic right.  That means finally -- and fully -- regulating the waste that pours from coal-fired power plants, to prevent the contamination of our air and water.  You can help by urging EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to do the right thing.

And remember, no matter what, coal is dirty and dangerous.