Conversations about pollution sometimes get caught between environmental responsibility and economic opportunity. A new report suggests it doesn’t have to be a choice. When it comes to coal ash clean up, the Ohio River Valley region can have it both ways.
Fully cleaning up coal ash in the five states that make up the Ohio River Valley would create more jobs in areas where jobs have been lost, and create opportunities for redevelopment, according to a report from ReImagine Appalachia, Union of Concerned Scientists, Earthjustice and Ohio River Valley Institute.
The report is the fourth in ReImagine Appalachia’s “Repairing the damage” series. Previous reports covered abandoned mine lands and abandoned oil and gas wells.
“When we talk about addressing environmental issues and climate change, we always get stuck … in these false dichotomies between protecting the environment and protecting jobs,” said Jeremy Richardson, the report’s lead author and senior energy analyst for Union of Concerned Scientists, in an Oct. 13 press conference.
“What I love about this work is that it is just such a positive story,” he said. “You get a good environment, you prevent pollution, you address environmental justice issues, you can create jobs in the communities that are losing jobs, and you create additional economic activity in communities that are suffering and finally, you tee up those communities to diversify their economies.”
Coal ash is left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity. From 1966 to 2017, electric utility companies in the U.S. generated 4.5 billion tons of it. It is often stored in coal ash ponds, but those run the risk of spills or leaching that can contaminate water and soil.
In the press conference, Lisa Evans, senior counsel for Earthjustice, said while coal ash isn’t legally a hazardous waste, it is hazardous by definition. Coal ash exposure raises risks of health issues, including heart disease, cancer and stroke.
Until 2015, the U.S. didn’t regulate coal ash disposal on a federal level. Regulations now require companies to monitor and clean up groundwater and close leaking and unlined coal ash ponds. Evans said, however, states are not required to enforce those regulations. And without complete clean up, sites can continue to leak and contaminate water.
The report covers Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana. Federal regulations require monitoring for 17 pollutants in coal ash. In those five states, 96% of plants exceed health standards on at least one pollutant, compared to 91% nationally.
Clean up costs are different depending on the site. Different landscapes and different levels of pollutants means different actions are needed. Utilities often suggest a “cap-in-place” strategy, which involves covering and sealing coal ash ponds, since that is the cheapest and easiest solution. But since the coal ash it still there, there’s still a risk of it contaminating groundwater.
A “clean closure” strategy involves excavating coal ash ponds and doing what it takes to remediate that particular site. That strategy is more expensive, but the report argues that cost is outweighed by the additional jobs, economic benefits and opportunity for redevelopment.
The report focused on case studies of two specific sites in western Kentucky and Appalachian Ohio. At both sites, it compared plans that have been put forth by the owners, and more comprehensive clean up plans.
In both cases, the comprehensive clean up plan would drive another $100 million in economic activity compared to the current plan. At the Kentucky site, comprehensive clean up would double the number of jobs available in the initial construction phrase of the project.
The report recommended making sure utilities and owners are responsible for clean closure of coal ash disposal sites, funding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency programs to support communities and enforcing federal regulations.
The report also recommends strong labor standards and safety protections for workers involved in clean up, and making sure that communities have a voice in clean up decisions. It also suggests that the EPA stop classifying unencapsulated coal ash — coal ash that is not bound into a solid material, or that is placed directly on land — as a reuse, and instead treat it as a form of disposal, and only consider encapsulated coal ash to be reused.
Those benefits would be going to a region hard hit by changes in the energy industry. In less than a decade, the Ohio Valley region has lost 13,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry and 25,000 in the coal industry, and more than 30 coal burning facilities have shut down from 2009 to 2017, said Amanda Woodrum, co-executive director for ReImagine Appalachia.
Coal industry workers, she said, should be first in line for clean up job opportunities. These locations can also be prime locations for redevelopment once they are cleaned up. Coal plants have transportation, electrical and water infrastructure assets, Woodrum said.
“Pollution clean up is essential to ensuring that these areas become places where people can safely live and work,” Woodrum said.
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