Ash, sludge and slurry, oh my!
Published 20th October 2009 - 4 comments - 2651 views -
Part 2/3 of my opening series on coal, the coal industry and its environmental and human impacts.
In order to burn coal that has been pulled from the earth, it must first be washed. The washing process consists of several stages of chemical and physical cleaning before the coal can be loaded onto a train. The refuse from the washing process is known as slurry and is a combination of huge amounts of water, rock, soil, chemical cleaning agents and several heavy metals including nickel, cadmium, and mercury. All of this industrial waste, when convenient, is placed behind huge earthen dams, in valleys. These slurry ponds, as they are known, can contain millions of gallons of toxic material.
Along similar lines, when coal itself is finally burned in a power plant, the resulting ash must also be disposed of. Because of the toxicity of the leftover ash, this must be done with either wet or dry ash dumps, usually consisting of a plastic-lined hole in the ground. While the environmental impacts of these landfills are hard to pinpoint, the plastic linings have been known to leak, and can be dangerous in places where heavy rain and frequent flooding are common.
Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world for a reason, and its harmful impacts reach across its entire life cycle, from extraction, to transport and storage, to burning the stuff. In particular, the toxic byproducts of coal slurry and ash have a painfully awesome history of ecological disaster in the United States.
In February of 1972 in Logan County, West Virginia, USA, a coal slurry dam containing 132 million gallons of sludge burst, killing 125 people and destroying 4,000 homes. The impacts of the Buffalo Creek Flood are still everywhere today, as contaminated soil refuses to grow plants and drinking water is unsafe, at best.
Reconciliation has yet to arrive in Logan County, as the coal-hungry state government rests comfortably in the pocket of the coal industry, a tragic fact that has left West Virginia with a single-sector economy for decades. Coal industry executives flirt openly with West Virginia politicians, and the court system often ignores public cries for fairness and retribution.
In December of 2008, a coal fly ash storage facility in Roane County, Tennessee burst at the seams, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of wet coal ash into the neighboring Emory and Clinch Rivers. The spill at the Kingston Fossil Coal Plant, operated by the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, was the largest in United States history. It’s rupture has directed a tremendous amount of scrutiny toward the regulatory agencies responsible for inspecting these sites, and in June of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the names and locations of 44 sites that it considered especially hazardous. The spill, according to TVA estimates, could cost up to $1 billion.
Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sunrise, West Virginia, sits directly below a mammoth slurry pond. Blasting occurs regularly within earshot of the dam, a collection of loose rock and soil that prevents almost 3 billion gallons of water from flattening a large collection of schoolchildren. This slurry pond is owned and operated by Richmond, Virginia, based Massey Energy, a kingpin in the Appalachian coal empire. It is estimated that children would have less than three minutes to evacuate. West Virginia’s government has done little to mitigate the dangers of nearby dust clouds and the constant threat of a 2.8 billion gallon tidal wave.
These storage sites would not exist if not for the rampant and irresponsible extraction of coal in general. The impacts of burning fossil fuels must never be confined to only the burning process. The extraction and preparation of coal consumes immense resources, causes tremendous geological change, and will ultimately contribute to extreme environmental and health problems. Certainly, we have already seen that ability well demonstrated in West Virginia.
About the author
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