Coal ash is a global problem
by Gabe Wisniewski
In most cases, we think about the smokestack as the source of coal’s pollution. And that makes a lot of sense — coal is the largest driver of global warming pollution on the planet and a primary driver of toxic air pollutants like mercury and nitrogen oxide. But coal combustion also results in millions of tons of solid waste in the form of coal ash and scrubber sludge. This toxic cocktail sits in “ponds,” often leaching into groundwater, or is even turned into building materials like concrete. But there’s no way to clean this stuff up — it is highly hazardous, and it is one of the true costs of coal that can only be avoided by switching to renewable sources of energy.
Today, our colleagues at Greenpeace China released a report and photo essay documenting the coal ash problem across their country. Their findings are strikingly familiar. Coal ash ponds there leach toxic material into the water supply just as they do in the US. Coal ash used in building materials there breaks down and threatens to enter people’s bodies just as it does in our homes. Coal ash is comprised of dangerous chemical compounds in China, just like it is here. And as in the US, the Chinese government has failed to effectively regulate this massive threat to the public’s health and safety.
I hope you’ll spend a few minutes with their report — and please take a look at the images below, our selections from the photo essay. We need a global energy revolution that solves the coal ash problem — and all of the many impacts of fossil fuels — once and for all.
Also, please join me in calling on our government to do the right thing and regulate coal ash for the hazardous substance it is.
Above: 07/11/2010. Emissions and wastewater from the state-owned Xuanwei Power Station in Xuanwei, Yunnan province, have greatly damaged local people’s health. High concentrations of nitrates in the water have been linked to high incidences of cancer in the area. The power plant’s coal ash disposal site is in Hongqiaopu village, about 3km away. The road between is heavily trafficked with huge trucks carrying coal ash to the dump, at a rate of about two to three trucks per every 10 minutes. The workers have absolutely no protective gear, leaving them in close contact with the hazardous fine particles of coal ash for long hours every day. The impact on their health is huge. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
06/18/2010. “No pictures!” cries this worker at a coal ash disposal site belonging to the Togtoh Power Station in Hohot, Inner Mongolia. The Togtoh Power Station belongs to the China Datang Corp, one of the country’s Big Five power companies, and has an installed capacity of 5.4GW. One of Asia’s biggest thermal power stations, it produces about 4.6 million tons of coal ash every year. © Zhao Gang / Greenpeace
06/16/2010. Ash chokes the sky above a coal ash dam owned by the Shentou Number 2 Power Plant, in Shuimotou village, Shuozhou, Shanxi province. With even the lightest wind, the tiny particles take flight, blotting out the sky like a thick sandstorm of ash. This is also highly hazardous to people, as the fine particles are easily inhaled. Lu Youlong, who works nearby, told us that contaminated water has seeped from the ash dam into village fish ponds, killing all the fish. They’ll never be able to raise fish again, he said. Many fields have also developed puddles of alkaline water, making it impossible to grow crops. © Zhao Gang / Greenpeace
09/05/2010. Fifty-six-year-old Yin Erbai has 8 mu (0.53 hectare) of farmland near the ash dam of the Shentou Number 2 Power Plant in Shuozhou, Shanxi province. His fields, which directly face the dam breakage about 300m away, were completely flooded by coal ash slurry during an accident on August 16th. He lost his entire crop of sesame. Yin digs down into the accumulated coal ash to show us just how deep it is, about 20cm. According to Yin, one mu of land can grow more than 150kg of sesame. At a price of RMB 4.8 per kilogram of sesame seeds, he has lost more than RMB 6,000 this year, and even more in the future: his fields have been completely ruined and rendered infertile by the coal ash. © Zhao Gang / Greenpeace
07/11/2010. A Greenpeace activist collects a sample of well water to test for the presence of heavy metals. The well is in the home of Lü Zexian, in Hongqiaopu village, near the coal ash disposal site of the Xuanwei Power Station in Yunnan province. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
07/14/2010. A Greenpeace activist collects coal ash samples from the Zhaluji village coal ash disposal site, operated by the Pannan Power Plant, in Pan county, Liupanshui, Guizhou province. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
08/07/2010. Greenpeace activists investigate a coal ash disposal site that belongs to the Yuanbaoshan Power Plant, in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia. The disposal site is located in a small valley, which the power plant has divided into more than 10 sections. One by one, each section is filled with coal ash and then covered with earth before crops are planted on the surface. Less than half a kilometer away, there is a dairy collection station for a famous dairy company. On windy days, the coal ash gets scattered far across the earth, blanketing the vegetation. Cows that eat grass contaminated by coal ash will produce less milk by as much as 2kg a day. “It has a big effect on our dairy cows. We lose a lot of milk and many calves,” said Auntie Chen, pointing to a dead calf. Many of the people of Xinglongpo village are very worried about the effect of the pollution on the health of their cows. © Zhao Gang / Greenpeace