US Coal Plants Dump Thousands of Gallons of Waste Into Drinking Water Supplies a Day
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Why is anyone fighting to save these things again? A detailed report in the New York Times just revealed that hundreds of coal plants across the country are routinely dumping thousands of gallons of waste water into rivers and lakes -- rivers and lakes that millions of people get their drinking water from.
So here's why all that dumping is going on, in a nutshell -- coal plants, as you well know, are extremely heavy polluters. Some plants pollute so heavily, some even spewing sickly yellow smoke, that little coal waste chunks litter nearby residents' yards and coat their property in a thin film. So when a community gets tired of this -- and gets sick of the respiratory illnesses and intermittent acid rain the plant creates as well -- sometimes they're able to get the state to insist on stricter pollution regulations.
If they're lucky, as in the case of the super-polluting coal plant in Masontown, Pennsylvania, they're successful, and the coal company installs 'scrubbers' that trap up to 150,000 tons of the pollution and keep it from entering the air. Hooray! Right?
Not so fast. Since the scrubbing process creates waste water from all that pollution, it turns out that the coal companies are simply dumping all of into nearby rivers and lakes, many of which Americans get their drinking water from.
And if you're anything like me, you're first reaction will be something like, "how the hell are they allowed to do that?" The answer is, oftentimes they're not. But they're getting away with it unpunished. You see, there's no federal regulation -- at all -- that specifically determines how much, if any, waste coal plants can dump into water sources. There are state regulations, and restrictions set by the Clean Water Act, but the Times found that while the plants are receiving notices for violations, nothing is being done about it:
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.
Check out this alarming map of coal plants around the nation that have violated environmental regulations but are going unpunished.
It also notes those few plants that have had to pay fines -- but they're egregiously low, even for excessive violations:
Hatfield's Ferry has violated the Clean Water Act 33 times since 2006. For those violations, the company paid less than $26,000. During that same period, the plant's parent company earned $1.1 billion.
In other cases, there's no existing framework at all to prevent companies from dumping harmful chemicals. This, for example, is particularly alarming:
only one in 43 power plants and other electric utilities across the nation must limit how much barium they dump into nearby waterways ... Barium, which is commonly found in power plant waste and scrubber wastewater, has been linked to heart problems and diseases in other organs.
The atrocities go on and on. No wonder coal companies are balking at the prospect of limiting their pollution under a climate bill -- they're evidently entirely unfamiliar with taking the environment and/or people's health into account at all. So allow me to hark back to my opening question: coal plants pollute the air, give people heart and respiratory problems, contribute to climate change, and now, dump tons of dangerous waste into our drinking water every day. Why is anyone trying to save these things?
Brian Merchant is a freelance writer, blogger, and editor living in Brooklyn, NY.