Tag Archives: coal ash

Air We Shouldn’t Breathe, Water We Shouldn’t Drink

Yesterday, I posted about the shorter-and-longer term consequences of Trump’s assault on various policies and norms. I noted in passing that the next administration–assuming it is Democratic (if it isn’t, the America we grew up in is gone)–will need to reinstate numerous environmental safeguards before it can address the critical threat posed by climate change.

Paul Krugman has laid out the dimensions of the Trump administration’s assault on basic environmental protections. Here’s his lede:

Given what we’ve seen in the impeachment hearings so far, there is literally no crime, no abuse of power, that would induce Republicans to turn on President Trump. So if you’re waiting for some dramatic political turn, don’t hold your breath.

On second thought, however, maybe you should hold your breath. For air quality has deteriorated significantly over the past few years — a deterioration that has already cost thousands of American lives. And if Trump remains in power, the air will get much worse, and the death toll rise dramatically, in the years ahead.

Krugman clarifies that, in referring to air pollution, he isn’t talking about the greenhouse gases driving climate change. He is addressing the issue of pollutants with a much more immediate effect. That includes, as he points out,  “fine particulate matter,” the small particles that make the air hazy.  Those particulates pose a significant health hazard, because they penetrate deep into the respiratory tract.

The good news until a few years ago was that thanks to environmental regulation the concentration of fine particulates was in fairly rapid decline. The bad news is that since 2016 this kind of pollution has been on the rise again, reversing around a fifth of the gains since 2009.

That may not seem like a big problem, but estimates are that even this relatively small rise  led to almost 10,000 extra deaths last year.

If deaths don’t concern you (!), perhaps the economic cost of rising pollution will. A study Krugman cites puts it at $89 billion a year. As he notes, even in an economy as large as America’s, $89 billion is a pretty big number.

And things are poised to get much worse. The Trump administration is working on new rules that would effectively prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from making use of much of the scientific evidence on adverse health effects of pollution. This would cripple environmental regulation, almost surely leading to sharply worsening air and water quality over time….

Why is this happening? As many observers have pointed out, failing to act on climate change, although it’s an indefensible crime against humanity, is also in some ways understandable. Greenhouse gas emissions are invisible, and the harm they do is global and very long-term, making denialism relatively easy.

Particulates, however, are visible, and the harm they do is both relatively localized and fairly quick. So you might have thought that the fight against dirty air would have widespread, bipartisan support. Indeed, modern environmental protection began under none other than Richard Nixon, and retired E.P.A. officials I’ve talked to describe the Nixon era as a golden age.

Krugman says the GOP has become the party of pollution.

Why? Follow the money. There’s huge variation among industries in how much environmental damage they do per dollar of production. And the super-polluting industries have basically put all their chips on the Republicans. In 2016, for example, coal mining gave 97 percent of its political contributions to Republican candidates and causes. And polluters are getting what they paid for….If Trump doesn’t succeed in destroying our democracy (a big if), his most damaging legacy will be the vast environmental destruction he leaves behind.

Krugman’s column centered on air quality; recent EPA rollbacks pose an equally serious threat to the nation’s water supply.

How corrupt do you have to be to value your bottom line over the health of your children and grandchildren?


Don’t Drink the Water

Welcome to Indiana, where taxes are low and regulations are lax. Just don’t get sick unless your employer provides health coverage, because we aren’t about to extend Medicaid, and by the way, you might want to boil your water before you actually drink it.

I’d been hearing concerns about Indianapolis Power and Light’s Harding Street plant for quite a while, so I finally investigated. What I found was disconcerting, to say the least. That plant is the biggest polluter in Marion County.

IPL burns coal in order to generate electricity, and it dumps the residue– toxic coal ash–  into unlined ponds next to the Harding Street plant. The plant is close to White River, and sits on an aquifer that serves a number of south side neighborhoods.

It won’t surprise anyone who has lived in the Hoosier state to discover that Indiana’s environmental regulations are among the weakest anywhere, and that the state does absolutely nothing about this–or about the other plants that produce coal ash. And we evidently have a lot of them; we rank second in the nation in the amount of coal ash we generate and we have more ponds than any other state.

We don’t inspect the dams and embankments that keep Indiana’s coal ash ponds from spilling. We don’t even require operators like IPL to monitor their own ponds and report what they find.

Meanwhile, the coal ash contaminates the groundwater we drink. A geologist hired by the Hoosier Environmental Council found concentrations of arsenic at twice the EPA standard for drinking water and mercury levels at 20 times the standard. Boron results were three times what the EPA says is safe for children.

Evidently, keeping business taxes low and regulations minimal–getting government “out of the way,” as the saying goes– is a much higher priority than clean drinking water.

“Let them eat cake” is so last century.

Let them buy Evian.