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Clean Coal – Dirty Water

Tired of breathing all those toxic chemicals belching out of coal-fired power plants? Big Coal has an answer. Nearly 50 percent of the coal-fired power plants in the country have installed scrubbers to remove toxic chemicals from their emissions. Sound good? Well, maybe not. Emission scrubbers work by spraying water and chemicals into the plant’s chimneys to dissolve and capture pollutants before they are spewed into the air. An article yesterday in the New York Times points out that while this may reduce air pollution, those toxins still have to go somewhere. In this case that means that the bad stuff is dumped willy-nilly into our waterways, landfills and groundwaters.


Coal plants are the largest producer of toxic waste in the country. The strengthening of the Clean Air Act means that there is stricter regulation of what they can emit into the atmosphere. That’s not necessarily true for water. There are no federal regulations that govern what power plants can discharge into waterways or landfills. What regulation there is has mostly come from states and they are much easier to buy than the federal government. The Clean Water Act does not regulate many of the chemicals discharged by power plants, or the regulations are woefully inadequate. “Ninety percent of 313 coal-fired power plants that have violated the Clean Water Act since 2004 were not fined or otherwise sanctioned by federal or state regulators.” States often fight against federal regulators to defend energy companies that bring large amounts of tax money to their states.

Most states have no limits on stuff like arsenic, aluminum, boron, chromium, nickel or manganese in their water because it hasn’t really been a problem up to now. EPA is planning on revising standards for power plant discharges because, “current regulations, which were issued in 1982, have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the electric power industry“. In the mean time, a 2007 report published by EPA found that people living near some power plant landfills face a 2,000 times higher cancer risk than federal health standards. Ask the good folks in Colstrip about what a good job PPL has done with their coal ash storage ponds or ask the people in Tennessee who are dealing with the cleanup from a spill of over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash.

There’s clean and then there is Clean Coal. No matter how hard energy companies try to spin the illusion or how much they spend on advertising or carbon capture daydreams, the fact remains that coal is the dirtiest industry in the United States. The answer is not in trying to make coal clean, the answer lays in spending that money to find a way to replace dirty coal with a more acceptable alternative. At least for now, you have a choice. You can either breath the poisons, or you can drink them.


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