Smile Politely

Covering coal’s ash

Coal. Our journey to modernity started with it; the oldest of our industrial fuels. It feels like something we’ve left behind a long time ago— most of us have much more personal experience with the other fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. However, coal is still the source of most American electricity. And unlike oil, we have a lot of it right here in Illinois. Our state contains more raw energy wrapped up in coal than Saudi Arabia has in oil. Oil is in the hot seat right now, courtesy of the mess BP has been making in the Gulf of Mexico, but coal is equally deserving of our attention. Let’s take some time to talk about why, as well as what our local activists are doing about it.

The reason most of us have stopped interacting with coal is simple: it’s dirty. In terms of most contaminants you can think of, coal releases more of it into the environment, and in huge quantities: sulfur, mercury, other heavy metals, particulates, all from coal combustion. Besides the immediately toxic by-products, there are also carbon dioxide emissions— coal produces more CO2 per unit of energy obtained than any other fuel, almost twice as much as natural gas. And that’s not even mentioning the impacts of mining the stuff, nor the left-over toxic ash to deal with after it has been burnt.

Coal’s primary use today is to make electricity, and here in the Midwest our generation mix is very coal-intensive. Illinois has the second largest number of coal plants in the Midwest, and the fifth largest in the country, making us especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of coal use. For most of this decade, the federal government chose not to take any action on coal pollution, though the new US EPA director Lisa Jackson is trying to make up for lost time.

These federal regulations are critical; our own IEPA is far too close to Big Coal. Similarly, the State Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is proud to encourage and subsidize coal use— witness the activities of their Office of Coal use, the lobbying behind ” FutureGen” and their creation of pro-coal curricula for use in our schools. Recent regulations tightening the safety thresholds for sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions as well as an improved Clean Air Interstate rule, have begun this process. US EPA has also begun rule-making on controlling carbon dioxide pollution from large, stationary sources, like power plants, due to Congress’s avoidance of any climate change legislation. Hazardous air pollutant regulation, such as mercury, is also on the agenda. You may have heard concerns about mercury embedded within compact florescent lights (CFLs)— but the energy saved compared to incandescents will result in less total mercury emissions for electricity sourced from coal!

Champaign County hosts no large coal-fired power plant; we get our electricity from coal burned in other counties. We may be about to host a new coal mine though — some 23,000 acres sprawled over this and Vermilion County. Out here, instead of strip mining or mountain-top removal, coal companies use much more pleasant-sounding techniques known as “long-wall mining” and “room-and-pillar mining,” both highly mechanized underground techniques that remove the coal from underneath your feet, destabilizing the ground, and disrupting subsurface geology.

The impacts are just as devastating though: it turns productive farmland into unusable wetlands, leachs coal toxins into groundwater, poisons wells, fish and wildlife, destroys infrastructure such as roads and houses, and more. In most of these cases coal companies promise to fix the problem and rarely do. Water permit hearings will come up in the next few months, and the Prairie Rivers Network is working to educate those that will be directly affected beforehand. The Mahomet Aquifer is one of the community’s biggest assets: will Big Coal be able to convince us to risk contaminating it?

The only large coal user in Champaign County is the University of Illinois, which burned 90,000 tons of coal at its Abbott Power Plant primarily to make steam and heat buildings. The health effects of the resulting emissions have not been evaluated, though EPA data indicate that Abbott is source of the majority of the sulfur dioxide emissions in the county.

Our air quality would be much worse if Students for Environmental Concerns had not fought a long campaign back in the 1980s to get scrubbers installed at Abbott, though what was “state of the art” then is barely acceptable today. Our coal ash, generated after combustion, is shipped back to Southern Illinois and dumped back in the mine it originated in, where concentrated heavy metal toxins are then allowed to leach into groundwater without any protection.

Recent student advocacy and planning efforts during the creation of a climate action plan have persuaded the campus to stop burning coal by 2017 — a date that cannot come soon enough, and which students are working to accelerate. Students here are also beginning to connect to other campaigns to end coal use, such as at the Fisk and Crawford plants in Chicago’s South Side that have almost no environmental controls.

Coal ash — the sludge and ash that remains after coal is burned — is the second largest stream of industrial waste generated in the US, second only to mining waste. In terms of public attention and government regulation, it’s the poor cousin to air impacts — though as regulations on air pollution have gotten stricter, more and more of the toxic constituents of coal have been concentrated in the coal ash instead of scattered into the atmosphere.

Some of this ash is disposed of in responsible — even beneficial — ways, such as by incorporating it into concrete and other building materials. But for the most part the ash ends up in landfills, impoundment ponds, abandoned mines and other places, where it is left to leach into underlying aquifers with no protection and no monitoring. The coal industry has even managed to get it dumped on public road ways (for de-icing) or spread on agricultural fields, in the name of beneficial use!

In 2007, one of the worst environmental disasters in US history took place when one of these coal ash impoundments failed, covering some 400 acres in Tennessee with several feet of toxic sludge, and adding another entry to the Superfund list. 30 such coal ash impoundments exist in Illinois, several considered high risk by the USEPA. One of these is next-door in Vermillion County, where leaching could threaten both the water supplies of nearby homeowners, as well as the health of the Salt Fork and the Middle Fork watersheds.

After the Tennessee disaster, hundreds of environmental groups across the country, requested that regulations be put in place to cover coal ash, and regulate it as hazardous waste — a reasonable classification given that it contains high levels of arsenic, chromium, selenium, and barium, sometimes exceeding by 100 times the level that qualifies a substance as “hazardous waste.” 

The EPA issued draft rules for comment earlier this month, but intense pressure from the Coal lobby and the Office of Management and Budget led them to release two alternatives: one that would create the necessary safeguards, and one that would merely establish watered-down “guidelines” that would be unenforceable by EPA and that States would have the “choice” to adopt. This summer the Sierra Club and our own Prairie Rivers Network are organizing a response within this State to seek strong regulations; six public hearing (and likely one in Chicago) will probably be held in early August, and citizen input will determine what we end up with.

The coal lobby is very strong in Illinois. As soon as the University announced that it would seek to stop using coal, lobbyists got on the phone and began complaining to our administrators and legislators. On this issue, they recently managed to get several of our state and federal legislators, including Tim Johnson, to sign onto a letter requesting that a weak regulation option be chosen— despite the presence of sites with coal ash-related groundwater contamination in his district. Similarly, IEPA has taken the position that strong federal regulation is unnecessary and that it should be allowed to maintain its (unsatisfactory) standards instead – should in fact US EPA feel the need to develop specific regulations at all.

Coal is a community issue, one that readers should be concerned about. All of coal’s processes, from mining, to burning, to coal ash, create significant environmental impacts, all of which hit home in this state. Our industrial history is inextricably linked to coal, though it’s not a thing of the past: coal continues to be a newsworthy topic. As our community and student groups continue to work on these issues, they will look to an engaged community as they try and bring about change.

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