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The Challenge (Coal continued)

Mercury

The mercury ejected from smoke stacks is literally raining down from the skies in many parts of the United States. Notice in this link that if you live in the state of Texas or are down wind of their coal fired power plants in another state, you and your children are at the greatest risk. Smokestack mercury is poisoning the Great Lakes as well as rivers across the country. This mercury accumulates in fish and the fish are eaten by people. Forty-eight states now have advisories against eating these mercury laden fish. The other two states also have mercury laden fish but their legislatures evidently value their fishing industries above public health concerns.

Mercury poisoning damages both the human immune and nervous systems. Even extremely small quantities of mercury are known to damage human intelligence. Pregnant women and young children are the most vulnerable, as mercury is especially damaging to developing neurons (video). This airborne mercury pollution could be avoided with existing technology.

The failure to regulate mercury is contaminating our fish. It is difficult to grasp why any government would allow the non-stop and progressive contamination of the fish their population eats, a staple in the diet of many people.

To this hour, minute and second, there is no federal law in the United States that mandates either the removal of mercury pollution from coal fired power plant stackgases or that mandates the safe sequestration of that captured mercury. The technology to scrub 80 to 90% of these emission has existed for some time and has been proven to work at a low cost in states that do regulate mercury emissions from coal fired power plants. The mercury keeps raining down from the skies and the level of mercury being concentrated in fish keeps rising.

The coal industry’s cynical use of the advertising slogan “Clean Coal” does not seem appropriate within the context of this pollution and the human suffering that it causes.

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Ash Pond and Mine Tailing Pollution

As coal fired power plants burn coal they have ash leftover that has to be disposed of safely. The total volume of coal ash waste that is generated while burning coal has doubled to more than 130 million tons per year. About 40% of the coal-fired power plants in the U.S. choose not to pay for the safe disposal of this ash. Instead they store their leftover ash in ponds of water. Many of the power plants that do remove pollutants from the smoke stacks add this waste (video) to these same stagnating ash ponds!


TVA Ash pond spill by Brian Stansberry

As ash ponds deteriorate over time, they can break loose and pour into suburban yards and homes as happened in Roane County, Tennessee in December, 2008. Like mine tailings these ash ponds are highly polluting.

How does this happen? There are sulfides in coal. Some of these sulfides go into the air with burning and unless removed by scrubbers create acid rain. Sulfides are also present in the ash and mine tailing. When these sulfides are exposed to air and water, they become sulfuric acid. This strong acid then leaches out the heavy metals contained in the coal ash and tailings.

Leachates include highly toxic: mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic. These heavy metals from leachates poison our rivers, lakes, streams and ground water. They contaminate our fish. Recycled coal ash waste is also ending up in soil amendments used directly in agriculture. The heavy metals in this ash are accumulating in our agricultural soils and are of deepening concern as mercury and other heavy metals enter the food chain. The toxic effects of these heavy metals on people are permanent and horrific. Federal law has severely limited the exposure of children to these very same metals in their toys. However, the lack of regulation has left these same metals in the air we all breathe, the water we drink and the food we all eat!

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