dan river spillBy Peter Galuszka

More and more, “The War on Coal.” seems like “The War On Us.”

Just a few weeks after 300,000 people in the Charleston, W.Va. area were without drinking water because of a coal preparation chemical leaked into the Kanawha River system, another spill involving coal could threaten the drinking water of Danville and, even worse, the cities of Tidewater which get their drinking water from Lake Gaston.

On Sunday, Duke Energy found that 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water had leaked from an obsolete coal-burning power plant into the Dan River at Eden , N.C.

The Dan flows to nearby Danville and supplies it with drinking water. To be safe, officials in Virginia Beach stopped drawing water from Lake Gaston which is also fed by the Dan.

Officials can’t seem to say for certain just what the danger is from the spill. The Waterkeeper Alliance, a national environmental group, has done its own testing and reports:

“Laboratory results of Waterkeeper’s samples, also show that, compared to the levels found in a “background” water sample taken upstream of the spill, arsenic levels immediately downstream of the spill are nearly 30 times higher, chromium levels are more than 27 times higher, and lead levels are more than 13 times higher because of Duke Energy’s coal ash waste.”

As BusinessWeek points out, the two spills involving coal materials seem like a bad joke.

An even bigger joke is that activists have been warning Duke for 40 years of the dangers from coal ash, which is the waste from burned coal. There’s plenty of it in Virginia, too.

Where are the Koch brothers when you need them?

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11 responses to “Yet Another Coal-Related Mess”

  1. the interesting thing (or not) is that all of us play a role in the gigantic piles of coal ash because 40% of our electricity comes from coal and if you check the website http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/how-clean.html

    you can see if the power you use comes from coal – and if it does – you can bet that plant also generates ash – but beyond that you won’t know how they are handling it -usually.

    I know where I am the local plant got permission to send it to an adjacent landfill. other places do different things including putting it in ponds which in theory is also “landfilling as once enough ash is put in then the water will drain away leaving behind just a pile of ash.

    the problem is the dams which unlike other dams – for some reason – are not regulated to structural standards and if the pond is actually draining a watershed.. – has water flowing into it – it will never dry up.

    Sometimes I think Peter gets into a “blame coal” orientation without dealing with the fact that it is us that require it and if we stopped using coal, and went to other sources, our individual electric bills would likely double or triple – which by the way – is how much electricity costs in many other parts of the world – we have the cheapest on the planet – but the “price” does not include people dying in mines, polluted rivers, mountaintops removed or ash ponds with broken dams.

    It’s a POGO story. the enemy is …..us…

  2. and of course, if we want to stoke more controversy and irony here:

    “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste”


  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You are not being fair to me Larryg.

    I am well aware of the role coal has played in the electricity mix and have covered it professionally for years. In 1981-82, I worked at a trade newsletter in Washington and spent the year visiting coal mines, traders and utility plants across the country from North Dakota to Wyoming to Texas to New England. I could recite spot prices for low sulphur, high BTU product in my sleep.
    I also remember what it was like living in the coalfields of West Virginia as a child.

    Just to disassemble your argument a little, the fact that coal is a big part of the electricity mix is no justification for dealing with today’s problems. Coal was an even bigger part of the economy 75 years ago and what you got was Pittsburgh where you couldn’t see the sun at noon and a miasma of air pollution killed scores in a Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s.
    What’s more, coal is interchangeable as a fuel source to some degree. Vepco, back in the 1960s, built nukes and planned on importing a lot of what was then cheap fuel oil from the Middle East because there were plenty of port facilities around the Chesapeake. Then the embargoes hit in the 1970s thanks to political grief and Vepco and other utilities switched to coal. I remember 100 coal ships swinging at anchor in Hampton Roads waiting for pier space in 1980.

    So, just to say, Peter doesn’t recognize the importance of coal is not only ludicrous, it is a false argument. The industry is fighting for its life (at least in Central Appalachia) and rather than embrace change it pushes a status quo. Technology exists to make coal much cleaner, but no one wants to pay for it. Meanwhile, we are left with dead miners, mountaintop removal and piles of coal ash. We ended up with companies like Massey Energy of Richmond whose notorious chief, Don Blankenship, got an $86 million golden parachute for leaving his role as one of the most reviled CEOs in U.S. business.

    So what am I supposed to do? Shut up and mealy-mouth “Coal is an important part of our energy mix and we are responsible for it?”

    You know better than that.

    to s

    1. my apologies. then. I think of the coal deal as a quandary for us.. because it is us that need the electricity and us that don’t want high electricity prices but then we also don’t want the environmental issues.

      we want “clean” and “cheap” electricity and that’s an impossible “want”.

      so the articles I value most are the ones that show both sides of the conundrum as opposed to being perceived as demonizing coal, the companies that mine it and the companies that burn it.

      I’m well aware that the companies and their CEOs are not saints and could do a better job are presenting the issues to the public but at the same time, the average person in our society does not give a rat’s behind as to why the power companies would propose an increase in rates – to deal with environmental issues ..the public is so cynical that it would see the rate increases as more profits and more golden parachutes no matter what Dominion said they wanted to do with the money.

      so.. my frustration with this is that we cannot seem to get beyond what is in my view a self-induced partisan divide where one side is calling the other evil-doers who care only about profits and not about the environment and the other side (the corporate, business, conservative) calling those who decry the harm done as enviro-wackos and dumb do-gooders who know or care nothing about the financial impacts of their advocacies because they think it all can be dealt with by just forcing lower profits.

      I just get frustrated when the articles seem to be so one-sided and leave me with a perception that these issues are the fault of Dominion and Duke, et al and that they could fix it without impacts to us if they really wanted to.

      in the end, it’s all about money and the public simply does not want to hear that electricity has to go up in price if we are going to deal with the environmental impacts. In fact, just the mere mention of new regulations riles up folks on the right nowdays, who think much of it is overblown by the enviro-weenies… and “lying” scientists anyhow.

      we got ourselves divided into two camps with each side doing whatever they can throwing mud pies at the other side.. it seems.

      I do commend and congratulate you for your continued excellence in writing about the issues… and thank you for those contributions that I do highly value and am sorry if I came across as criticizing you personally.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    No problems, Larry. I also apologize. Part of my sour feeling is that I had to put my German Shepherd, a family fixture for 14 and a half years, to sleep this week.

    1. I’m so sorry Peter.. I’ve had dogs all my life and have had to put several down and it’s like losing a family member…

      and I have a Lab right now who is on his last legs and it works on me.

      Hopefully as time goes by your sorrow will ease.. and you might be interested in a new puppy.

      best to you Peter.

  5. There is a good article on the WV spill in the Feb. 3 issue of BusinessWeek.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    TMT,I cite the BizWeek article in my post!

    1. yeah.. I noticed that!

      the thing about the coal “mess”.

      suppose Duke and Dominion said that they would agree to stricter standards for ash ponds .. tougher regulations .. but they’d want to pass that cost on to customers.. say a penny a kilowatt hour and they’d use that money to do ash ponds “right”.

      Would citizens be agreeable to that?

      that’s the tension I see – when I say – we have a responsibility.

      Dominion and Duke cannot print money to pay more to fix environmental risks.. we would have to pay to do that.

      So.. for instance, it’s actually possible to remove much more of the mercury that is being released into the environment – for a cost.

      And it’s possible to mine coal without “removing” mountaintops – for a cost.

      but we can’t be telling companies to do these things – and expect no costs passed on to us.

      and that’s why I say that we bear some responsibility for these things.

  7. The problem on coal ash as I understand it, is that the EPA has chosen not to regulate this material as hazardous, which basically means it can be used, “recycled” or disposed in many ways, depending on state regulations. In 2009 there was a good 60-Minutes overview:
    In one VA case, they were using coal ash to build a golf course, near some residential water sources. I favor a move to clean coal technology, which is expensive, but would reduce waste. In any case, the waste needs to be disposed properly, for Pete’s sake.

    1. a golf course subsequently determined to be of questionable safety because coal ash does contain arsenic and other serious contaminates including radioactivity, that people fear will leach into groundwater and rivers..

      The problem is – “we” – the consumers of electricity – are the ones that own the problem -not Dominion. Dominion will do with it what we as a society decide to do with it and what we’re willing to pay for.

      But demanding that Dominion do something with it – for no cost to us – is at the least naive and at worst just willfully and irresponsibly ignorant.

      Dominion does not create money. They charge us for the costs of creating electricity which includes all the costs including PROPER disposal of the by products.

      The other interesting thing to me is that the EPA is often demonized by many as “drunk with power” and “forcing unneeded “job-killing” regulations and regulatory costs” on businesses and citizens while at the same time criticized for NOT doing these same things.. for other “pollution”. It’s damned if you do… damned if you don’t.

      we landfill coal ash in King George county. there is, in theory, a “permanent” “liner” that will prevent the ash from leeching into the ground water and nearby Rappahannock River… but “permanent” has been defined to be about 100 years. After that, it’s the next generations problem.

      I have no idea what Dominion does with the rest of it at it’s other plants (the local plant is not Dominion but is a private plant that contracts with Dominion to produce “on-demand” (dispatch) power.

      Coal ash has been recycled, not without concerns and opposition but in my view, we should be treating coal ash like we do solid waste from our homes in terms of solutions.

      We have a mixture of for-profit and govt-run landfills that receive trash from every house and without them – household trash would be everywhere with people dumping it in ditches and abandoned lots, etc.

      so we take Government responsibility for solid waste – and liquid waste – sewage and in my view we should take similar responsibility for coal ash and I’d include mercury.

      when we say “environmental protection” – it does not happen by telling a company or industry that they must clean up and recycle but they cannot pass those costs along to customers.

      The customers, in fact, are financially responsible if we want o require the companies to do something specific other than just find the cheapest way to dispose of the pollution.

      we all own the problem and trying to just blame the companies for eating the costs of disposal is unrealistic. They will do the lowest cost solution that they can legally do – and the results of that is coal ash ponds with no liners and no real structural standards for dams.

      this is one of my frustrations about people:

      1. – the environmental movement who advocates for strict regulations but wants company’s to eat the costs and

      2. – non-environmentalists who do not want higher priced costs that include cleanup-costs.

      who is seriously about real solutions?

      will increased labor costs for cleaning up coal ash lead to unemployment like increasing minimum wage is claimed to do ? Only if you do not pass those costs on to consumers…. in both cases….

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