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Canary in a Coal Mine

By Ted Nelson
October 6, 2009
File under: Carbon Emissions, Climate Change, Electric Sources, Natural Resources


It’s not a secret that a big draw-back of renewable energy is cost. The direct financial costs borne by the producers, and therefore consumers, of electricity created from fossil fuels is lower than that of renewable sources like wind and solar. However, the argument in favor of renewable energy is that there are indirect costs of electricity generated from fossil fuels that are not borne directly by the producers or consumers, but by society at large.

These are environmental and health costs that do have a direct and meaningful impact on our quality of life, but are not directly paid by producers and consumers of electricity generated from coal and other fossil fuels.

These indirect costs are not as tangible as the direct costs: you feel the impact of your electricity bill on your budget immediately, while the health and environmental impacts of coal usage are hard to quantify.

Carbon emissions levels are gaining public awareness, but still not universally accepted as important and hard to reach out and touch even for those of us who feel they are important. (One group is working to help us visualize a ton of carbon.)

A 60 Minutes segment that aired Sunday October 4, explores an issue that might make the indirect costs of coal more tangible: a by-product of coal combustion known as fly ash. A dusty, dirt-like material that contains elevated levels of toxins such as arsenic, lead, and mercury. Fly ash is stored in vast mounds near power plants, or recycled for a wide range of uses including concrete, carpets, road beds, bowling balls, kitchen counters, golf courses, and fertilizers.

There are environmental benefits to these uses, particularly concrete. First of all, recycling the fly ash means that it does not have to be disposed of as waste. Fly ash makes concrete stronger, and should therefore increase its useful life and reduce waste. Using existing fly ash to replace Portland cement also cuts down on CO2 emissions.

Portland cement production creates about one ton of CO2 for every ton of cement. Of course, burning coal creates twenty to thirty tons of CO2 per ton of fly ash, but this is a sunk cost. The question is whether these environmental benefits are outweighed by harm that has been, to-date, unaccounted for…

Fly ash flew under the radar until December of 2008, when 1.7 million cubic yards were released into a local river from an 84 acre storage pond in Kingston, Tennessee. The fly ash has contaminated the river and forced local residents to abandon their homes. Those who cannot or will not leave are left living in what is basically a toxic site.

The direct clean up costs are estimated by the Tennessee Valley Authority to be between $675 million and $975 million. The indirect costs on the lives of area residents and those living downstream are virtually impossible to quantify. While the spill itself is absolutely unacceptable, the fact that the conditions which allowed it to occur were completely ignored by us, the public, and our elected officials is equally troubling.

60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl sat down with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director Lisa Jackson, who somewhat shamefully admitted  that the EPA has no idea about the safety of recycled fly ash products. Coal ash is not a regulated material by the federal government. Jackson did say that the EPA would study the issue.

To date, the studies on coal ash safety have been performed by big coal and big electric. They assure us that the material is safe. Yet 60 Minutes explored leaked documents which show that a utility selling fly ash to a local golf course instructed all employees to essentially treat the ash as a toxic material, wearing haz-mat suits and respirators. The resemblance to big tobacco appears to be striking: knowingly endangering the public, covering up and denying facts, and lobbying aggressively to assure the public that nothing wrong is happening.

The results of an EPA study on fly ash could do to big coal and big electric what lung cancer and other smoking related illnesses have done to big tobacco, especially if there is evidence of negligence or knowingly deceiving the public. If fly ash is indeed a dangerous material, toxic, then disposing of it will add to the cost of coal-fired power. Some will see this as an “unfair” tax on coal; however, it is actually a way to bring the direct cost of coal in-line with its societal cost.

Free-market economic theory dictates that externalities–costs on third parties, such as people unknowingly exposed to toxic products–should be internalized. Fly ash may cause the true cost of coal to be internalized even if cap-and-trade regulation fails to pass. It will be very interesting to see what the EPA’s findings are on the safety of recycled fly ash use.

Click here to learn more about the Cap and Trade system.

Comments (3) Email Link
  1. Janet S
    October 7, 2009 10am UTC

    How could the EPA not know about this? Isn’t this what they are supposed to be covering? I feel their pain as well since they are fighting against the lobbyists – look at the flack they are receiving for their carbon taxing they just proposed. Hopefully it will motivate the house to pass a cap & trade agreement sooner. And good for these companies of visualizing the carbon emitted from these plants and other factories. People need more of this since unfortunately not everyone is watching 60 minutes or reading this

  2. david brewer
    December 16, 2009 11pm UTC

    Please see story on the following link (once you’re at site (Huntsville Times Top 10 picks), you’ll have to scroll down to story about TVA coal ash spill. See if it deserves to be among Top 10 stories of 2009 by clicking ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down.’

  3. test
    July 21, 2014 2am UTC


    Is Fly Ash a Dangerous Material? – from ecomii blogs…

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