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February 26, 2013

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Is coal ash the price we pay for electronic conveniences?

Is coal ash the price we pay for electronic conveniences?

Where would we be without electricity? As a society we are addicted to electronic gadgets. What if you couldn’t charge them? And what if we could not watch our favorite TV show? What if all life stopped after nightfall and had to be lit by candle? No refrigerator or freezer. No air conditioning in late summer. No modern conveniences. No nightlife, clubbing, music and lights.

What price would you pay for these conveniences? Rather, what price do we pay for these conveniences – both monetarily and environmentally?

There’s a rising movement to hold power companies responsible for their emissions and byproducts in recent years. Many of these companies’ power plants are powered with coal that leaves behind a waste byproduct known as coal ash or fly ash. There are more than 300 coal waste sites in the United States. Locally, an environmental group has sued Santee Cooper for its handling of coal ash, which is considered to be an unregulated waste. Even though the Grainger plant in Conway is now offline, there are still coal ash ponds on the site that Santee Cooper will have to manage for years to come.

On one side, you have environmental advocates who see dangerous toxins, including arsenic, mercury and lead, inside of the coal ash – chemicals that can leak into ground water and waterways and can hurt our drinking water supply. They have lobbied the EPA for years to categorize coal ash as a hazardous material. But legislators have stopped short of categorizing the material as hazardous in proposed bills, the most recent considered in the Senate last year.

On the other side, you have plant operators who generate as much as 129 million tons of coal ash per year as a total industry. Plant operators have found some solutions for coal ash, including recycling the materials into cement building products or road construction. Advocates for recycling point out that 40 percent of coal ash is repurposed each year in a long list of ways.

Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said in a Jan. 7 Bloomberg News article, “We want to continue to support the safe beneficial reuse of coal ash. We believe the safe and environmentally sound recycling is protective of all public health and provides economic opportunities and jobs. The proposed rule maintains the regulatory exemption for beneficial reuse.”

Coal ash recycling is advocated to be safer than long term landfilling, but if it were classified as hazardous material, the recycling opportunities would be eliminated. The hazardous designation means a series of strict federal and state controls for handling, transporting and dumping the waste.

Environmental groups, including Earthjustice, believe that coal ash needs to be reclassified as a hazardous waste because of the heavy metals and pollutants contained in it. There are as many as 12 pollutants in coal ash that can cause harmful health effects, such as cancer, tumors, and brain damage, among other illness. The question of safety revolves around whether these pollutants are found in a high enough concentration to cause problems and whether or not these leak into our water sources.

Today in the Palmetto State, the majority of our electricity comes from coal and nuclear generation. Santee Cooper, also known by its official name – the South Carolina Public Service Authority, is a state-owned utility that provides retail power to customers along the coast and wholesale power to the state’s electric cooperatives. Regardless of who bills you, Santee Cooper probably generates your power in our area. Increased costs of disposal can go one of two ways – passed along to the wholesale or retail customers, or it may be passed back to the taxpayers since the utility is state-owned. Either way, the cost of disposal may seemingly fall to us.

That leaves you and me in the middle. We want our conveniences, powered by electricity, and our reliance seems to be increasing with every technological innovation, from iPhone to electric car. Electric companies must keep up with our increasing demands. However, it seems like there is a potential environmental and health price to pay for our electricity.

In Conway, the Grainger Plant had operated since the 1960s until it was officially shuttered last year. The coal ash ponds on that site sit between the towers on U.S. 501 and the Waccamaw River, in an area that can flood during hurricanes. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice with the EPA alleging that Santee Cooper has three violations of the Clean Water Act with discharges into the river. The notice says the utility has 60 days to correct the violations, which seems rather short for remediation since it has been 50 years in the making.

There is no single solution to coal ash, especially since every situation is different and challenging. While recycling seems like an easy solution, there are concerns about the safety of reusing a compound with these toxins. There are no easy answers around this complex subject, which makes this coal controversy - a potential coal catastrophe.

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