Waking up to coal's other mess
Raymond "Squeak" Hunt is not one to be ignored. He's not afraid to speak his mind (even if it means building a giant billboard to do so). More often than not, he's holding a large, sharp knife (he butchers sheep for a living). And he's prone to spouting aphorisms which, though they don't always make sense and are highly irreverent, can be pretty damned funny.
Yet, a lot of people have ignored him for a long time. Squeak, as his friends call him, has for decades been battling the owners of the San Juan Generating Station, a massive coal-burning power plant that sits just up the road from Hunt's house and business in Waterflow, N.M.. Enviros have long taken issue with the smoke from the plant's stacks (and the haze it blankets the region with). But only a few activists have listened when it comes to Hunt's big fight: Against the solid waste that comes out of coal plants.
I wrote about the problem for HCN about a year ago:
Hunt's not upset about global warming or the pollutants that pour out of the plant's smokestacks. He's mad about coal combustion wastes - CCWs, as activists call them - the solid remnants left over from burning coal. Hunt says they've sickened his family and neighbors, even killed his sheep. Each year, power plants in the U.S. collectively kick out enough of this stuff to fill a train of coal cars stretching from Manhattan to Los Angeles and back three and a half times. It's stored in lagoons next to power plants, buried in old coal mines and sometimes just piled up in the open. It is the largest waste stream of most power plants, and a recently released study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people exposed to it have a much higher than average risk of getting cancer. Yet the federal government refuses to classify the waste as hazardous, and has dragged its feet on creating any nationally enforceable standards. And with new attention focused on coal power's impacts on the air, this great big problem may get worse, and continue to be ignored.
Hunt and his allies will be ignored no more. Last month, a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disposal pond burst, sending billions of gallons of nasty sludge onto hundreds of acres, down a stream, and even into a few people's living rooms. That has prompted activists to rise up and demand action on the larger problem of faulty regulation of CCWs, and Congress (and the public) seem to be listening.
Granted, the problems faced by folks in Hunts' neck of the woods are a bit different. The West's dry climate means less likelihood that coal ash nastiness will get into groundwater, and sludge ponds like TVA's are few and far between. Still, given the utter carelessness and lack of oversight when it comes to disposing of this stuff -- sometimes in mines, sometimes just out in the open -- it easily blows or washes into arroyos or rivers (and in some cases can seep into the water table).
In addition to the aforementioned HCN story, you can see Hunt's story here. And, for your viewing pleasure, here's a couple photographs. The first one (click on it to enlarge) is the San Juan Generating Station, the Shumway Arroyo, and Raymond Hunt's house (notice how the arroyo essentially runs right through the plant). The next one is the Four Corners Power Plant (across the river from Hunt's house). Those big grey things are piles of coal combustion waste -- 25 million tons, or so. Right next to them is the Chaco River. And below that are those same piles of waste, in a more intimate setting.