In catching up on articles this past weekend, I read an article in Sierramagazine about the problems associated with the coal ash ponds created by the huge coal-fired electric plant in Colstrip, MT. As coal is burned, it leaves behind a certain amount of residue, but unlike the wood in our fireplace, coal ash is filled with dangerous heavy metals and toxins, including mercury. Some of the ash is turned into building materials, but much of it wastes away in holding ponds along with sludge from srubbers that remove a portion of the pollutants from the smokestacks. Unfortunately these ponds lead to even more pollution as the chemicals in the water both leech into the groundwater and evaporate into the air.
I also saw a piece in the New York Times about the difficulties in cleaning up the massive coal ash spill in Kingston, TN. This massive spill in 2008 made us all aware of the dangers of these holding ponds. Outside of the sheer magnitude of the cleanup (the article notes that the disaster spilled “5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash across 300 acres into the Emory River and an affluent shoreline community near Knoxville(,) enough ash to cover a square mile five feet deep.”), the cleanup crews are having trouble finding appropriate dumping grounds for the sediment. The spilled ash is horrible stuff, filled with heavy metals that can lead to cancer, and not many landfills can handle it, especially not in these massive volumes. The one landfill that does take the sludge, located in tiny Uniontown, AL, has received so much rain lately that it has to deal with 100,000 gallons of tainted water per day as a result. The cleanup contractors are looking across the southeast for sites to process the tainted water, including in my home state of Louisiana. That situation is not yet resolved.
It is hard for me to believe the environmental furor over hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, a practice that has not created a single documented instance of groundwater contamination, when there are hundreds of these toxic retention ponds at coal plants all over the country, many of which are classified by the EPA as “high hazards” or disaster sites (see map below). I can certainly understand the desire to avoid other potential new hazards, but the outrage directed towards fracking, especially in the Northeast, would be much better spent preventing the spread of toxic pollution associated with coal-fired power plants.
Which brings me to the oxymoron of “clean coal.” It makes my head hurt to try to find two words that go less well together. That large scale carbon sequestration and storage (CSS) has not yet been demonstrated is fairly well known, but what happens if it is finally possible? The amount of carbon captured for storage from coal generating plants would be huge. We would quickly run out of places to store it. On top of that, coal plants would have to burn lots more coal just to power the CSS process. Talk about a win-win for the coal industry!