Saturday, February 21, 2009

the many costs of coal-based electricity

I just stumbled on this comprehensive investigative article at, about one of the unsung costs of our dependence on burning coal to generate electricity (about half the grid electricity in the U.S. comes from coal-burning power plants).

The recent coal-slurry pond failure in Tennessee may have burst the dam (sorry, had to say it) holding back regulation of this particular toxic by-product of our insatiable fossil energy dependence. The truthout article describes a great deal of the salient (and eye-opening) history of regulation of the waste from coal-burning power plants. Historically, it has been left to the states to regulate and has been generally classified as non-hazardous stuff, despite typically containing a litany of toxic metals. From the article, referring to a specific power plant and its ash ponds in Montana:
Nothing about the existence of the Colstrip ash ponds violates state regulations. Nor are there federal rules for dumping the toxic slurry. Coal ash is hazardous by any common definition - "It's dangerous stuff. ... That's what the public thinks of when thinking of the word 'hazardous,' " says one former EPA employee. But the agency has yet to designate coal ash "hazardous" under federal waste laws - a key designation that triggers strict controls for handling, transporting, and dumping waste...

This problem should sound familiar to those who follow the nuclear power story. Where to put the spent radioactive fuel? In fact, it's the age-old problem of what to do with any waste; the first (and ongoing) version being, "where do we shit?" In the case of coal, the good news is that a major portion of the waste is used in the manufacture of concrete and wallboard, among other (supposedly benign) uses. And I suspect stricter state and/or federal regulations are bound to come. Bandaids are all well and good, but we must take aim at the heart of the problem: our dependence on fossil fuels to support a profligate, inefficient lifestyle that keeps us living beyond our means.