Saturday, January 17, 2009

Middlebury Shifts: Fuel Oil to Wood Chips

Students and staff at the environmentally-conscious Middlebury College in Vermont have been planning about how they could shrink their carbon footprint and help reduce global warming pollution well before it became fashionable to go green. As a result, the Trustees approved a Carbon Reduction Initiative in 2004 to implement a biomass burner that would reduce the college's oil-related emissions by almost half. In subsequent years, students stepped up their efforts to work towards carbon neutrality, meeting in a Sunday Night Group to plan strategies, drafting detailed MiddShift proposals, calculating the college's carbon footprint and the costs/savings of implementing emission reductions, and discussing the findings with faculty and staff. In 2007, they won Trustee approval to enact changes that would effectively eliminate the college's net greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2016, a remarkably early target date that is backed by funding. Construction of Middlebury's biomass burner has recently been completed.
The college is now firing up the $12 million wood chip gasification boiler, which they estimate will pay for itself within about 12 years. About 80% of the wood chips will come from logging operations, and the rest from land clearing operations or mill residue, all within a 75-mile radius. See the NY Times report here.

Middlebury College, together with the SUNY Environmental Sciences and Forestry College in Syracuse, is testing feasibility of using fast-growing willow trees as a future source of additional biomass.

There are multiple advantages of using biomass. It is a renewable fuel, since it can be replaced by growing more. It is produced domestically, thereby diminishing dependence on foreign sources of heating oil. It is derived from plants that remove CO2 from the atmosphere while they grow, and so no additional climate-warming CO2 is released when plants are grown, burned and then replaced with new plantings.

Using biomass reduces the college’s consumption of fuel oil by about 1.1 million gallons per year by replacing it with 20,000 tons of wood chips, a renewable fuel that reduces the net amount of greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 12,500 tons per year. For additional information, visit the Middlebury College website.

Middlebury's environmental reputation has won national recognition. The hard-hitting, environmental news and blog site, Grist, labeled Middlebury a "hotbed of climate activism" and ranked it second among the top 15 green colleges and universities nationwide.

Friday, January 9, 2009

TVA CEO takes Heat on Coal Ash Spill -- Senate Hearing calls for EPA Regulation

The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority pledged the federal electric utility would do a "first-rate job" cleaning up the mess left from last month's massive coal ash spill. But at a Congressional committee hearing to examine the spill he faced sharp criticism from senators unconvinced by his promises.

"You need to have a plan to clean this spill up and you don't have it yet," said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which conducted the hearing. "People will never feel safe there again."
[click image to enlarge]
To minimize dust and erosion, TVA is spreading grass seed and fertilizer, as well as a liquid dust suppressant on the ashy sludge. Boxer said TVA should be doing more than it currently is doing to clean up the area. "This isn't a harmless mud," she said. "Seeding the ground with grass is not a permanent solution. Cleanup can be done right or it can be a ticking timebomb."

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore testified that the utility is committed to completely remediating the contaminated area and will work to compensate affected residents. Boxer pressed Kilgore on TVA's lack of a plan to deal with two river coves popular with residents. "We want to recover all that we can recover," Kilgore said. While TVA does not have plans to clean up the coves, the utility doesn't have "plans not to," he said.

"That's not an answer," Boxer responded. "That's not cleanup."

Boxer also questioned Kilgore about reports that TVA had been warned of the potential failure of the impoundment wall at least twice in the past five years, but balked at a $25 million project to secure the site. "You went with the cheapest fix, and now you have the most expensive problem," Boxer said. "The cost of that $25 million is going to seem like pennies compared to what it is going to cost to clean this up." Early estimates of cleanup costs are as high as $250 million.

Boxer said the spill highlights the need for federal regulations to govern the disposal of toxic coal ash, noting that state regulatory efforts have been inconsistent at best. "For nearly three decades, EPA has been looking the issue of how to regulate combustion waste," Boxer said. "The federal government has the power to regulate these wastes, and inaction has allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated," she said.

Boxer said the ash shouldn't be held in ponds, where it can contaminate water supplies. Coal ash also has been placed in abandoned mines and quarries. In other cases, dry ash is held in lined landfills.

Stephen Smith, the director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called for federal regulation of coal combustion waste, saying that voluntary industry practices and state rules haven't prevented the contamination of land and water near disposal sites. "We absolutely need to keep ash out of the water," Smith said. "Storing it wet is unacceptable."

"It is critically important that protective standards for coal ash waste be established," Boxer said. "The EPA doesn't even need any legislation from us. They have the ability to regulate this and I see it is coming. I hope it is coming."

The full report is here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Toxic Coal Ash Needs Federal Regulation

Hundreds of Coal Ash Dumps Lack Regulation -- NY Times
The coal ash pond that ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of East Tennessee last month was only one of more than 1,300 similar dumps across the United States — most of them unregulated and unmonitored — that contain billions more gallons of fly ash and other byproducts of burning coal.

Like the one in Tennessee, most of these dumps, which reach up to 1,500 acres, contain toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Yet they are not subject to any federal regulation, which experts say could have prevented the spill, and there is little monitoring of their effects on the surrounding environment.

Contaminants and waste products that once spewed through the coal plants’ smokestacks are increasingly captured in the form of solid waste, held in huge piles in 46 states, near cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa, Fla., and on the shores of Lake Erie (near Buffalo), Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

As the EPA has studied whether to regulate coal ash waste, the cases of drinking wells and surface water contaminated by leaching from the dumps or the use of the ash has swelled. In 2007, an EPA report identified 63 sites in 26 states where the water was contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps, including three other Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dumps. See the Map, below:
The full NY Times report is here.

On January 8, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a hearing on the Tennessee coal ash disaster and the TVA. Potential hazards lurk in coal ash dumps across the country. Let Congress know that coal ash contains hazardous waste that must be subject to Federal regulation in order to protect human health and welfare as well as the environment. Tennessee residents affected by the coal ash spill let the Senate Committee Chair, Barbara Boxer, know. They presented her with a mason jar full of the TVA coal ash sludge.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coal Ash Disaster -- Local News

Local News from Roane County, Tennessee
  • Spilled coal ash carries poisons: Arsenic levels are 149 times the limit for drinking water, according to Environmental Protection Agency results from the first round of tests on river water containing the coal ash sludge that flooded 300 acres of Roane County on Dec. 22. Long-term exposure to the coal ash pose health concerns for humans, as well as for fish stocks and local wildlife. Full story.
  • Doctor's orders: relocate from ash spill: A Roane County couple residing one mile from the TVA ash spill does not want to take any chances when it comes to their unborn child. Neither does her OB-GYN, who wrote a note asking TVA to relocate the couple. Full story.
  • TVA to spread seed and straw at Kingston spill site: To contain spilled ash from a failed coal ash retention pond, TVA says it will spray seed and straw in a process similar to the one used by highway departments to provide ground cover. After the seed is sprayed, it will appear green in color for about two months. [OMG: Green coal ash!] Full story.
  • Officials say they didn't push Roane schools' water plan: Roane County Schools to use bottled water for food preparation when students return to class beginning Monday, January 5. Full story.
  • TVA inspection points to prior issues with ash pond: An inspection report released in early 2008 that looked at the fly ash pond where a dike failed at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant showed inspectors have noted problems at the pond for years. Full story.
  • Erin Brockovich to come to Roane County: Environmental law consultant Erin Brockovich expects a class-action lawsuit will come out of the TVA sludge slide. Brockovich was involved in class-action lawsuit that led to a $333 million settlement in the 1990's and inspired the academy award-winning movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts. Audio interview with the real Erin Brockovich is here.
And finally, an Editorial Cartoon from the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Toxic Coal Ash Disaster raises Health Concerns

One Billion gallons of coal ash sludge, the residue from burned coal in water, surged out of a holding pond after an earthen retaining wall burst at a coal power plant in Harriman, TN on December 22, 2008 destroying homes and property, and contaminating waterways [click image to enlarge]. The 40 acre holding pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a coal-burning electrical power plant, contained decades worth of ash deposits piled 55 feet high. (see previous blog post for Map and more photos)

Coal ash has long been known to contain dangerous concentrations of heavy metals, but for days, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) officials maintained that the sludge released is not toxic. Residents feared for their health, and complained that the authority had been slow to issue information about the toxicity of the coal ash and sludge released into river water.

A week after the ash dam burst, TVA along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended avoiding direct contact with the ash sludge, and that children and pets should be kept away from it. The EPA also recommended that anyone exposed to the ash sludge should wash thoroughly with soap and water and wash the affected clothes separately from other garments.

Federal officials cautioned residents who use private wells or springs to stop drinking the water, and not use it for cooking or bathing. Arsenic in a sample taken from the nearby Emory River was higher than the maximum level allowed for drinking water. Elevated levels of arsenic can cause ailments ranging from nausea to partial paralysis, and long-term exposure has been linked to several types of cancer, according to the EPA. Sampling in the vicinity of the Kingston water plant, which is upstream of the spill, and of the water being served by Kingston showed no violations of drinking water standards. The EPA press release is here.

Residents were also concerned about breathing the ash particles if the massive ash deposits and mounds throughout the area dry out and become airborne. Initially, they were told by TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore that wouldn't happen because it's rainy and damp. One week later, however, the TVA indicated that they will install sprinkler systems to moisten the ash.

Arsenic is not the only toxic chemical in coal ash. To get some sense of what else is in the ash and the quantities involved, the Institute for Southern Studies examined the Kingston facility's Toxics Release Inventories (TRI) filed with the EPA back to 1998 and included the 2007 TRI emissions data from the TVA website. Their findings are summarized in the table below:

[click image to enlarge]
The coal ash releases since 1998 contain over 14 Million pounds of chemical pollutants, raising considerable concern about potential health risks.

Coal ash contains known human carcinogens including Arsenic, Chromium, Mercury, Nickel and polycyclic aromatic compounds, as well as suspected carcinogens including Lead and Cobalt. Mercury and Lead are toxic to the nervous system and can cause developmental problems. A number of the chemicals in the ash have been linked to reproductive problems. Barium, when ingested in drinking water can cause acute gastrointestinal disturbances and muscle weakness as well as kidney damage over time. Vanadium has been linked to respiratory problems, birth defects, and kidney and liver damage.

The Institute for Southern Studies notes limits to the data, including that it is self-reported by the company with no independent verification, looks at only select chemicals and excludes some pollutants found in coal such as radioactive elements, and only goes back to 1998 while Kingston plant has been in operation since 1955. Nonetheless, the data does give a sense of some chemicals of concern present in the ash and thus the potential health risks. The full report from the Institute for Southern Studies is here.

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen promised greater oversight of coal ash retention ponds after viewing the disaster on December, 31. "Burning fossil fuel for electricity is a dirty business," he said. "Everywhere this happens there are huge ash piles, there are environmental issues. My dream out of all of this is maybe this is an epiphany for TVA and for the country that some things have got to change", he said.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing January 8 on the Tennessee Valley Authority and the ash spill, and testimony will be provided by TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore, environmental advocates and local officials who responded to the disaster.

UPDATE Friday, January 2, 2009: Independent tests of the river water near the Kingston power plant were performed at the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry labs at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Scientists found Arsenic levels from the Kingston power plant intake canal at close to 300 times the allowable amounts in drinking water, while a sample from two miles downstream still revealed arsenic at approximately 30 times the allowed limits. Lead was present at between twice to 21 times the legal drinking water limits, and Thallium levels tested at three to four times the allowable amounts.

Toxicity levels of heavy metals in the water were deemed a cause for concern to humans, as well as for aquatic life's ability to survive and reproduce in waters with these levels. The full report is here and the river sites tested are shown in a Map here.

UPDATE #2: The EPA has finally disclosed it's quantitative test results on the river water. The water sample from the Emory River near the spill site showed total Arsenic levels 149 times the maximum acceptable level, total concentration of Lead five times above normal, and slightly elevated total levels of Beryllium, Cadmium and Chromium. Samples taken near the Kingston water treatment plant, which is upstream from the spill site, were found to be within the federal limits, except for Thallium, which was found at levels three times the maximum limit. The news report is here.