Scott Pruitt Wants To Make It Easier For Utilities To Poison Your Children With Toxic Coal Ash. Are You OK With That?

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The virulent form of Ayn Rand-inspired capitalism prevalent in America (and most other countries) today is based on a simple premise — privatize the profits and socialize the costs. You might think public utility companies would have a social conscience. Any company with a government guaranteed monopoly should be concerned with the health and welfare of its customer, shouldn’t it? If that’s what you think, you are so last century. In the weaponized form of capitalism that makes greed a dominant principal, the game is to maximize profits at all costs — even if it means poisoning your customer base with arsenic, mercury, hexavalent chromium, or vanadium.

TVA coal fired generating plant
TVA Kingston coal fired generating plant. Credit: TVA

Coal Ash Contamination

For the past several decades, utility companies in American have generated 100 million tons of coal ash a year at their coal fired generating stations. It has no commercial value and the utility companies don’t know what else to do with it, so they dump it somewhere on their property in pits or lagoons. Since there are no job-killing government regulations requiring them to make sure the stuff doesn’t seep into the groundwater, those pits and lagoons are just unlined holes in the ground.  There are no standards in place to insure they don’t fail and let their toxic stew slop over into the environment.

New Rules From The Hated Obama Administration

In 2014, the Obama administration, known for strangling business with a myriad of burdensome rules and regulations, required utility companies to drill test wells near its coal ash storage areas just to see if maybe, just maybe, some of the nasty stuff in coal ash was seeping out and contaminating the environment. Last Friday, the first results from that testing program were reported. According to US News & World Report, Duke Energy identified possible contamination at 48 locations. American Electric Power reported similar results at 24 ash disposal sites. Dominion Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy and others also reported evidence of contamination.

“[The federal regulations] did give some tools to communities that they previously did not have — one that we are seeing come to fruition right now is this monitoring of where this pollution is going,” Dalal Aboulhosn, the deputy legislative director for land and water at The Sierra Club, tells Think Progress. “What we are seeing the utilities show us right now is that what we suspected before is true — these ponds of pollution are leaking into groundwater and could have toxic repercussions to the community around them. Now we have that on paper.”

Everything’s Fine. Go Back To Sleep

Predictably enough, the utilities say there is no evidence any hazardous materials from their coal ash storage areas are endangering local communities. What they mean is that even if your water has arsenic or mercury in it, you can’t prove it came from us so we don’t have to do anything about it.

Proving where a particular molecule came from is exceedingly difficult. And all those contaminants in coal ash do occur in nature. Which gives the companies the opportunity to employ the same tactics perfected by the tobacco and fossil fuel companies — it’s not true if you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law and besides, your scientists are all a bunch of lying, low life sleazebags who will say anything they are paid to say.

Utility Companies Fight Back

The companies have been pushing hard to get the Obama-era rule repealed. They say the testing program cost them $100 million a year, money they cannot afford to pay. They are perfectly happy, however, to have you pay for the testing. Privatize the profits; socialize the costs. Last week, they got their wish when Scott Pruitt, the Beelzebub at the helm of the EPA, announced a campaign to roll back the hated regulations. The proposed changes would allow utility companies to decide for themselves when to do testing. Since they never did any before the rules went into effect, how likely do you think it is they will do so after the rules are relaxed? If you said, “Never,” give yourself a gold star and go to the head of the class.

“The list of environmental protections the Pruitt EPA is attempting to roll back continues to grow, this time with a proposal to weaken the first-ever federal coal ash rule,” Lisa Hallowell, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a press release last week. “Despite mounting evidence of pollution at coal ash sites, EPA — which is supposed to be protecting the environment — wants to reduce safeguards.”

A Wake Up Call

Despite the utility companies’ stance that there is nothing to worry about, in 2008 a breach at a coal ash storage pond at the TVA’s Kingston generating station sent 525 million gallons of contaminated water into the Tennessee River. In 2015, the state of North Carolina notified nearly 500 families not to drink the water because it was polluted by vanadium and hexavalent chromium. Those families have been drinking and cooking with bottled water ever since.

In 2017 a federal judge ordered the TVA to excavate an unlined coal ash pond near its Gallatin, Tennessee power plant after tests showed it was leaching contaminates into groundwater and possibly into the Cumberland River — Nashville’s primary source of drinking water. Just last week, officials in Alabama fined Alabama Power $1.25 million for groundwater pollution at 6 coal-fired generating stations, five of which are owned by Southern Company, the same organization responsible for the clean coal debacle in Kemper County, Mississippi.

Do Ethics Have Any Place In Business?

Privatize the profits; socialize the costs. You might think a responsible business would feel an ethical obligation to protect its customers from harm. But that assumes there is a place for ethics in today’s business world. Make no mistake. Utility companies are all about making money — money for their investors, money for salaries, bonuses, and generous retirement packages for top executives. The utility industry is working hard to weasel out of paying to test for potentially harmful groundwater contamination. What does that tell you about what role ethics play in their thinking?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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