Wisconsin news made The Rachel Maddow Show again last night. That’s because on Monday, coal ash from the grounds of We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant was swept into Lake Michigan when a shoreline bluff collapsed during construction — ironically, for an air quality control system.

The Oak Creek Power Plant is just up the road from us here in Racine, and a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story tracks the debris and coal ash floating south:

Maureen Wolff lives in Caledonia about a mile from the power plant and can see the plant’s smoke stacks from her home. She walked to the lakefront shortly after the incident and was dismayed to see lots of debris and wood floating south toward Racine. Because of the dark color of the debris, Wolff wondered if coal ash ended up in the lake.

“We Energies confirmed that coal ash was likely in the debris,” the Journal Sentinel reports. The coal ash was deposited in multiple locations back when environmental rules were much more lenient — before regulations like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act ended these practices.

Of course, environmental regulations are exactly what Republicans are working hard to dismantle. Republicans don’t like the Environmental Protection Agency protecting our environment; a number of them want to eliminate the EPA entirely. Maddow notes that the House of Representatives just passed the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2273) a couple of weeks ago, on October 14.

H.R. 2273 reiterates that “coal combustion residuals” do not warrant regulation, and blocks the EPA from regulating them, in favor of a vague permit program that each state has three years to implement, if it so chooses.

Our Republican congressman Paul Ryan voted for H.R. 2273. Ryan was one of 230 Republican voting for the bill, joined by only 37 Democrats.

The bill is now pending in the U.S. Senate as S. 1751. Republicans count it as “job creation” legislation — even though, as Earthjustice contends, S. 1751 “will also kill 28,000 potential new jobs that would be created by a strong coal ash rule.”

For all their singing about how “united we stand,” Republicans generally prefer to dismantle federal regulations and divide these protections up among the 50 states, which can then presumably battle amongst themselves to be more “business friendly.” One of the problems with this strategy is that after coal ash floats through the waters off Racine and Kenosha, it enters the waters off Illinois. Lake Michigan water is also important to Indiana and Michigan, but none of these residents have any say regarding Wisconsin environmental regulations.

Wisconsin’s environmental regulators actually approved construction on the bluff that collapsed, the Journal Sentinel reported:

The Public Service Commission’s 2008 decision approving the project said the agency determined the $900 million pollution control project at the original Oak Creek coal plant was not a project that required either a detailed environmental impact statement or a less exhaustive environmental assessment.

What is coal ash?

If you look up “coal ash” on Wikipedia, you get the entry for “fly ash.” In short, burning coal obviously produces ash. Some of this ash is fine enough to rise up a flue with the flue gasses, and this is called “fly ash.” Some of the ash is too heavy to rise, and so is known as “bottom ash.” Fly ash can be filtered and collected from the flue, then combined with bottom ash. Together, these are simply known as “coal ash.”

Wikipedia also lists some environmental problems with coal ash:

Since coal contains trace levels of arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, thallium, selenium, molybdenum and mercury, its ash will continue to contain these traces and therefore cannot be dumped or stored where rainwater can leach the metals and move them to aquifers.

The same article estimates that these heavy metals are 10 times as concentrated in the ash as they are in the coal. There had to be a reason why, even before the environmental regulations of the 1970s, this coal ash was buried in landfills. If it was truly harmless, they would have just dumped it in Lake Michigan.

Prior to this, the biggest coal ash spill was the Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill in Roane County, Tennessee on December 22, 2008. Cleanup costs for the Kingston spill may reportedly exceed $1.2 billion.

Why so much money is being spent to clean up something which is not hazardous waste is confusing.

Power plant waste is a big enough issue to have its own acronym (PPW). According to the Clean Air Task Force, coal-fired power plants generate 130 million tons of combustion waste per year, “enough to fill the Grand Canyon”:

Laden with heavy metals and other harmful toxics known to contaminate water supplies, these wastes cause injury and death to livestock and wildlife, and threaten human health with birth defects, cancer, and organ and neurological damage. PPW is routinely dumped in unlined impoundments, landfills, and mines throughout the United States, allowing hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, chromium, and lead to leach into surface and ground waters.

An October 9, 2009 story by the New York Times, “Cleansing the Air at the Expense of Waterways,” examined the dilemma:

Even as a growing number of coal-burning power plants around the nation have moved to reduce their air emissions, many of them are creating another problem: water pollution. Power plants are the nation’s biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastic and paint manufacturing and chemical plants, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

60 Minutes looked into the safety of coal waste in an October 4, 2009 story, “Coal Ash: 130 Million Tons of Waste.” In that report, Leslie Stahl learned of at least 1.5 million tons of coal ash being used as fill under a Chesapeake, Virginia golf course:

Asked if there are any environmental concerns, the executive told the mayor, “No, sir. We at Dominion Power are fully in compliance with all the federal and state regulations.”

Two years later, an internal company study about handling the ash for the golf course recommended that workers use “impervious gloves” and “particulate-filtering respirators” due to “potential health … risks.”

According to 60 Minutes, during the Bush administration, the EPA endorsed “beneficial use” of coal ash which has resulted in its recycling as everything from schoolroom carpets to bowling balls to bathroom sinks.

As WUWM reported on January 11, 2010, a company called CalStar has begun turning fly ash from the Oak Creek Power Plant into “eco-friendly bricks.” A Racine Journal Times story from the same day counts 12 employees at the plant, eventually growing to 35 and producing 40 million bricks a year.

60 Minutes interviewed current EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who indicated the EPA has no data and very little to say on the subject of whether recycled coal ash products are safe or not. However, “If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste, lobbyist Jim Roewer says ‘beneficial use’ would die and the cost of disposal would skyrocket.”

That cost would — horror of horrors — be passed on to us, the consumers.

In September of 2010, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story reported that We Energies was providing Caledonia homeowners with bottled water for drinking and cooking, while denying the Oak Creek Power Plant was the source of a molybdenum contamination of Caledonia’s groundwater.

Apparently, molybdenum is both a risk factor for gout and also an “an important dietary nutrient” found in green leafy vegetables.

Who’s to blame? Ultimately, we consumers are. We demand the prosperity of electricity, but we don’t want to deal with the consequences of producing it. Instead, we try to either sweep them under a rug, or pretend they are additional wonder products.

Ah, Soylent Green® — it’s both a floor wax and a dessert topping! Just wear your impervious gloves and drink your bottled water while you’re golfing or bowling, and you’ll be fine, kids.

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