Coal Ash Isn’t Sexy

One of the big problems with contemporary policy debates is that many of the most important issues we face are technical, complicated and definitely not sexy. A disproportionate number of environmental issues fall into that category.

But just because an issue isn’t easy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a significant impact on our everyday lives. That’s why everyone who lives in Central Indiana and has the time should plan to attend Greening the Statehouse, Indiana’s largest annual gathering of environmental advocates, on Saturday, November 14th, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the University of Indianapolis.

Greening the Statehouse will be keynoted this year by Lisa Evans; I’m told she is America’s most influential advocate for coal ash protections. According to the Hoosier Environmental Council,

Coal ash has special significance for Indiana, since the state leads the nation in the number of coal ash waste lagoons. There is arguably no person better in America to speak to this issue than Lisa Evans. As a coal ash expert with twenty-five years of experience in hazardous waste law, Lisa has testified before the U.S. Congress and the National Academies of Science about the risks of coal ash and federal & state policy solutions.

“Lisa Evans will be an amazing keynote speaker: She is a formidable combination of intellect, knowledge, passion, and heart. We believe that hearts and minds will be changed by her remarks – so important for a state that must grapple with risks posed by having the largest number of coal ash lagoons in America,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Greening the Statehouse will also be an opportunity to learn about other (not-so-sexy-but-really-important) environmental issues. Panels will tackle food systems, the quality of our rivers and lakes, and the economic impact of climate change. A former (very good!) student of mine will talk about the role of Chambers of Commerce in fostering environmental sustainability.

High profile panelists include ExactTarget co-founder and Tyner Pond owner Chris Baggott, Vice President of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce Mark Fisher, and Purdue professor & nationally-respected water expert Dr. Jane Frankenberger.

Registration for Greening the Statehouse is $25 general admission and $10 for students. To register, visit Lunch will be provided.

Breathable air, swimmable rivers, drinkable water….the things that make “sexy” possible.


  1. Will you be there? If so, I would like to connect with you (briefly). I always enjoy your columns. And we have a little history (that I am sure you are unaware of).

  2. So what’s wrong with coal ash? In what concentration? In what dispersion? And what’s Indiana’s levels?

    Even if coal ash has problems, coal is a great source of cheap energy, and cheap energy increases everyone’s standard of living.

    The blog post just kind of presumed coal ash was bad.

    You can make some nice building materials from coal ash,

    See CalStar Products

  3. I am currently reading, “The Killing of Karen Silkwood, The
    Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case”. Published in 1981, it is of importance today as the unsafe practices of handling plutonium and uranium mining and the many forms of hazardous materials and waste products have not been totally resolved. Indianapolis, referred to as “The Crossroads of America”, has long been traversed 24/7 by hazardous waste material transports. In the mid-1970’s I attended an all day conference regarding evacuation of the city in case of emergencies covering many forms of disaster. This conference was chaired by Richard Blankenbaker; one “solution” was to know where handicapped people are located so they could be evacuated by Public Safety. During a break, I asked Mr. Blankenbaker what arrangements had been made to move wheelchairs with the handicapped. He said they hadn’t even considered that but maybe they should.

    The coal ash problem is an old and ongoing one here with unending complaints; the damage done to residents and property by the old coke plant is another issue that will never be made public. Indiana is a hotbed of hazardous air, land and water. Little has been done since that long-ago evacuation conference; since that time more hazards have been discovered, developed and overlooked and ignored by all authorities due to the cost to businesses of cleaning up their mess. So the mess stays, grows and we eat, drink and breathe contaminated sources that will be with us for years into the future. To those at Greening the Statehouse meeting, I wish them success…or at least a viable start at finding solutions to the many problems.

  4. Gopper asks 3 good questions. You should cough up $25 and learn the answers. In the long run, however, the effects of dirty coal and its dirty fossil cousins, oil and natural gas, will make the life of our children and grandchildren much more expensive, even unbearable.

  5. Sometimes I wish I lived closer to Indianapolis. Of course other times a thousand mile seems way too close.

    The time will come in a few decades when coal is widely and properly regarded as the most expensive source of energy the world has ever known. Of course some already know that but others watch Fox News.

    The reason that so many are deluded into believing otherwise is the impact of the total take, make, waste cycle for coal energy is geographically spread out so each of us experiences only a portion of it and the same is true of the costs and government subsidies. It’s a classic study in fooling the public.

    If science had not been on the job it’s highly probable that we’d have blithely rendered earth uninhabitable then been surprised at the extinction of life.

    Energy is not created but harvested. We have but one real supply that doles out our daily dose, the sun, and what we are finally engineering are ways to harvest it on a daily basis as compared to fossil fuels which harvested it and stored it for over 300,000,000 years.

    One of the unrecorded costs of coal are the annual human deaths it causes in mining, transporting, converting it to electricity, and dumping the waste into our one common atmosphere and water supply. We won’t know how much cancer that one product causes until we stop using it.

    Events like this one that Sheila describes are essential educational opportunities to move people to the solution side of the ledger. Their limitation is that they tend to attract the folks who need them least. The takers will be sitting at home watching Fox instead.

  6. The coal mining industry has a powerful lobby and many Republican governors, including Pence and former gov Daniels, continue to prostitute themselves out to that industry. The large and powerful Duke Energy is fossil fuel dependent for their income and they have investors to answer to, so spending on lobbyists is chump change for them.

    The leaking of coal ash ponds into rivers and underground aquifers is known, but being ignored. Now Duke says it cannot afford to clean up their contamination mess in NC so the hundreds of people living around there have contaminated wells and are told not to drink their well water.

    Eventually the taxpayers will get stuck footing the bill for the cleanup. Privatized profits and socialized risks is the name of the game. Republicans keep harping on socialized care for the poor being too expensive while they seem to be completely immune to the reality of socialized profits for large and powerful corporations, which cost us all many billions more.

  7. Being the resident nerd, I checked out CalStar Products, America’s only manufacturer of sustainable brick and masonry products. The product offerings include a wide range of brick, pavers, through-the-wall concrete and architectural facing units and cast stone products. The sustainable building products are made using proprietary technology and an innovative manufacturing process, allowing builders, architects, and developers to incorporate recycled industrial by-products (i.e., coal ash) into their projects while also lowering the embodied energy and carbon footprint.

    Just imagine, some enterprising entrepreneur realized we have lemons, so we should make lemonade. At present, there are only two Indiana structures built of CalStar bricks, Illinois Place Apartments on W 33rd Street in Indy and a Mennonite Church near South Bend. I noticed that Alliance Resource Partners, LLC, a publicly traded energy company (i.e., coal mining) is constructing its new Headquarters in Lexington, KY using CalStar bricks produced from coal ash.

  8. Taking on a huge power company like Duke by ranting and venting perhaps makes some folks feel like they’ve made a difference; on the other hand, I’ve chosen to do my individual and personal part by using Geothermal heating and cooling at my house just north of Indy.

    As most people know, at a certain depth the ground temperature remains relatively constant, so why not tap into that source for heating and cooling. I have two Water Furnaces using an open loop from a single 400′ well. My heating and cooling bills on a rather large 3-story home have never exceeded $200 per month in the 5 years we have lived in the property.

    Even a sweeter deal, a tax credit remains available until 12/31/16 for home and commercial building owners who install geothermal heating and cooling systems through the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 (H.R. 1424). H.R. 1424 offers a one-time tax credit of 30% of the total investment for homeowners who install residential ground loop or ground water geothermal heat pumps.

  9. I have just read an interesting article, The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge on Bill Moyers Web Page. Some sections –
    In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America. “Genuine ignorance is . . . profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas,” observed psychologist John Dewey.

    At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old.

    Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-“educational” complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact. This effect is fortified by the substantial overlap between conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians. The latter group begins with the core belief that truth is revealed in a subjective process involving the will to believe (“faith”) rather than discovered by objectively corroberable means.
    Ignorance of certain subject matter can be cured with knowledge, Anti knowledge cannot. It would be interesting if at the next Republican Debate if each candidate was asked – approximately how old is the earth, the universe?? Do you believe life on earth has evolved?? I can just imagine all the sputtering and Bible Thumping.

  10. Louie, getting back to coal ash, various pollutants, and the waste by-products of industry, I’ve opted not to place my or my family’s best interests in the hands of any politician, whether Democrat or Republican. There are some things we simply have to do for ourselves, and I can assure you that anything you hear from a talking head on any media outlet, whether Fox or MSNBC or from any Presidential debate has Louie’s best interests at heart.

  11. It appears that a certain poster’s haughty, condescending and patronizing behavior is revealing a superiority complex.

    Without any factual knowledge about the other posters on this blog, the self-proclaimed resident nerd seems to have decided that we should not be upset about Duke Energy contaminating our ground water with coal ash and we all would be better off to just look the other way and ignore the issue.

    Not everyone has the ability ( financially or otherwise) to have geothermal heating and cooling. While those are environmentally friendly systems, we still need to switch to alternative energy sources that can supply the masses. Solar and wind are good alternatives and will hopefully one day be available to everyone.

  12. Good thoughts here. Signs that the great enlightenment is indeed underway.

    Global warming has no one solution, no eureka moment. Our present and already obsolete energy system took a hunted and fifty years to build but it’s replacement will have to be built in much shorter time.

    Making bricks out of coal ash instead of leaving it useless in the ground, making cement as nature makes sea shells and coral both are clever innovations and will contribute solutions but the total solution will result from millions of projects and ideas like those.

    The recent movie “The Martian” illustrated an important lesson in life. When you have a monumental problem you don’t need to have a monumental solution, you just need to conceive and execute a step 1, and keep it up until the problem is whittled away.

    Progress is underway and the upcoming IPCC convention in Paris will go down in history as a milestone in the defeat of anti-knowledge, the one monumental contribution of these times.

  13. You can’t have it both ways, Nancy. You’re always complaining about money problems, but heating, cooling and energy are a huge part of every family’s budgetary needs. You can cut cable, but you can’t cut the water heater or the lights.

    I’m not going to demonize a power company for using the cheapest resource to make life livable for everyone from Seattle to Miami. If there’s ash, we all had a hand in making that ash.

    Like driving your car? Steel made the car, and coal made the steel. Like having buildings that don’t collapse? Steel makes the buildings, and coal makes the steel. If there’s a cheaper energy source than coal, a power plant will use it. I’m not sure you understand it takes a lot of money to make energy.

    If energy companies were possibly incentivized for providing free or reduced-cost Calstar-ish construction materials to building projects, a lot of that coal ash might get sucked up by the market and locked away forever as inert matter in buildings.

  14. Gopper I am not trying to have it “both ways”. What I DO want is for corporations to take responsibility for polluting our environment. We have got to stop allowing any large corporation from making obscene profits at any cost. Answering to stockholders without any concern for people is destroying our economy and our country.

    I am not always complaining about money, so stop making generalized accusations. We all know that energy is a vital part of our household budgets, but we have got to switch to cleaner power. It can’t be done overnight but progress needs to be made.

    Would you want a coal ash pond in your back yard? Would you want fracking in your back yard? You say that you aren’t going to demonize a power company for using the cheapest resources to create their end product. We are all aware of what our energy consumption is doing to this planet and are aware of what we need to do to stop the pollution and destruction, yet people like you are willing to pass on this destruction to your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren leave them with the mess and expense to clean it up.

  15. “I’m not going to demonize a power company for using the cheapest resource to make life livable for everyone from Seattle to Miami. If there’s ash, we all had a hand in making that ash.”

    I don’t know of anyone demonizing the past. It’s the future that progressives worry about. You know, the part that we can control.

    Energy is an essential ingredient in making and sustaining life. It has always been provided in the least costly way possible and that will continue. But costs that we did not know about in the past we do know about now so the equations have changed.

    Feigning ignorance on our part will not change those new equations.

    The takers would like to push those additional costs into additional taxes on our children and grandchildren and theirs. That’s not progress.

    Progress is eliminating the fossil fuel middle man and harvesting our energy closer to its source.

  16. We have all seen videos of old locomotives laying down huge black streams of smoke which eventually are diluted with enough air until they seem to disappear, “seem to” being the operative phrase.

    That’s coal ash.

    We know now how to extract, control and waste it on the ground rather than into the air.

    Water in ponds keeps it from blowing away.

    But where do the toxic heavy metals in the soot end up?

    No longer in the air or land but in the ground water.

    Like the move from locomotives, this is another “seems to” solution.

    They end up in our bodies. They cause cancer. That’s how the coal business hides their waste.

  17. As the now shamed resident nerd, I will admit to interrupting an ongoing game of “Ain’t It Awful” between a couple of serious players. I should have exercised more discretion as per Eric Berne, MD’s classic little book “Games People Play” re: transactional analysis. I’m sure Kurt Vonnegut would spank my hand for interrupting one of those classic psychological theatricals that human beings play over and over again.

  18. We used to eat the fish we caught in Minnesota. I was shocked that that was no longer advised for children or women who planned to have children.

  19. TCM recently had a series about women directors, one of whom filed a documentary about how coal miners won the right to collective bargaining. What they mainly wanted were improved safety standards (after dozens of them were incinerated alive in a Duke Energy mine explosion), improved health care and occupational disease coverage and improved working conditions. I hadn’t realized before seeing this documentary how powerful Duke Energy was in the coal business–they own mines in West VA, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. The woman who filmed this and her cameraman (I forgot her name, but she won an Academy Award for documentaries that year) were attacked during a confrontation. She also did interviews with the widows of miners who died of Black Lung disease and who recalled a miner’s strike in the 1930’s.

  20. Gopper asks, “So what’s wrong with coal ash?” Plenty, and here’s a few for starters:

    If you want to see what’s wrong with coal ash at a glance, type “Coal ash disaster” in Google images. Not that any of this would change Gopper’s mind, which is always right. In his mind.

  21. Interloper, you really are a shrill, annoying little ninny.

    The question about coal ash was open ended, not presumptive, you affected ninny. You could have simply answered, instead of hissing while posting some obvious links from the first page of a Google search. Sort of a drive-by response on your part. My initial comment was really to point out that Sheila again examines only problems, never benefits, a very unscholastic approach.

    So there’s problems with coal ash. There are greater benefits in using coal, especially when the ash can be reclaimed.

    Natural gas is only possibly cheaper if a plant is located by an abundant source. Coal, being a solid, has much greater energy density than gas, so it’s much easier to transport large quantities of energy in coal form than gas.

  22. You should change your name to “Groper”

    Every time you post, I feel like I’ve been Molested

    And you are totally wrong about Gas v Coal (Take
    it from an Engineer)

  23. Aside from all the above comments; the other night, being bored and a curious person, I decided to click on the names of commenters on this blog. Actually, I was hoping to learn who or what Gopper is but that didn’t happen. I clicked on Pete’s name and it brought up the “Climate Science Lite” web site. Clicking on Marv Kramer’s name brought up “Ethical Front Network” web site. Neither looked too interesting or enlightening but thought I would pass along this information in case others might be interested…or as I was the other night, bored and curious.

    We who pay attention have always known there are hazards regarding all power sources; either obtaining, producing or expelling power in any form and dumping their waste products has its drawbacks. The subject of nuclear power wasn’t mentioned; as Helen Caldicott informed us many years ago, it is used to boil water, to produce steam, to then produce power to keep us warm or cool, light our homes and businesses, et al. A simple way of producing power…unless there is a leak or a disaster such the ones at Three Mile Island, in Russian and the Fukishima weather disaster in Japan resulting in a complete melt-down we still do not know all the consequences of. We have been told by our government that these nuclear plants are safe; probably less chance of failure but…the cost of those failures are drastic and never-ending. We must pay for our comforts; sometimes the cost is the environment, our health and/or our very lives in some cases. Ms. Caldicott also stated there are safer ways to produce power, but they are not without a cost.

  24. Hilarious postings today! Pete gives us an unusual spate of satire among educational nuggets. Great stuff from everyone including farts from the occasional Grinch.

  25. JoAnn, the biggest obstacle to nuclear power now is finding investors. A plant takes so long to build and certify and is so uncertain from an approval standpoint and ownership liability so high that America might never see another one. And of course we haven’t yet figured out a way to store spent fuel rods, the problem being that they aren’t very spent. There are 100s to thousands of years of radioactivity still remaining in them.

  26. Nuclear power, like nuclear weapons, should be against the law world wide. Plutonium has a half-life of 25,000 years. This government invited the public to watch atomic bomb testing in the Nevada desert; they still don’t know how many were affected by this form of entertainment. They also still have that tiger by the tail with no idea how to let go.

  27. How come nobody here, including the so-called engineer, is talking about thorium reactors?

    JoAnn and the other luddites just want to turn out all the lights and return to cook stoves, whale oil lamps and horse transportation.

  28. I believe that the largest threat is from coal and oil plants. They need to be shutdown first. Just as urgently we need to move away from oil based transportation as fast as possible. Move that demand to electricity from wind (both on and off shore) hydro and solar as much and as fast as possible. All of that has to be accompanied by massive energy efficiency improvements in all sectors. Once we have all of that done we might think about shutting down some nuclear.

  29. The good thing about burning coal is that the more coal you burn, the more coal ash you get. Coal ash can be used to make real nice burial vaults, the sort of thing we need when we burn lots of coal, and we all know that we will need more burial vaults. I suspect we will probably need those vaults before the planet burns up from the consequences of our reckless decisions. The same may not apply to our grandchildren, but what the heck. It’s all about money in the short run, right?

  30. Gopper if conservatives hadn’t derailed the climate change progress train 25 years ago we could be in a position now with less pressure to make rapid progress. But they chose the derailing route so we cannot wait for any of the new nuclear technologies to emerge. We have to spend every resource available on not letting our collective stupidity sink the ship.

    Will the molten salt thorium reactor technology be useful a few decades from now? Possibly. That’s why there is development work going on.

  31. Gopper: Re: incentivizing power companies to develop uses for coal ash – EPA has incentivized power companies through regulations, which I’m sure you oppose. So as much as you and Duke would like to get paid more to pollute, you can’t have it both ways. Duke is not the only power company with the problem on this scale – IPL has it too. Fortunately for IPL they’re headquartered in Indiana and will never be subject to state enforcement action.

    The power companies have a wonderful arrangement; they make power and mark up their costs to set rates to the consumer. They never lose. They hate competition and want to kill solar and wind energy, except that most states (excluding Indiana and Kentucky) require power companies to develop alternative energy sources as part of their corporate portfolios.

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