Will Coal Ash Spill Get Into the Air?

  • Airborne toxins could be causing health problems for residents near this coal ash spill (seen in the background) in Tennessee. (Photo by Matt Shafer Powell)

Environmentalists don’t want a lot of new coal-burning power plants to be built. They’re concerned about more greenhouse gases from the plants and environmental damage from mining the coal. Late last year, another concern came to light. For decades a power plant disposed of coal ash in a pond next to it. The dam holding back the coal ash sludge failed. Matt Shafer Powell reports more than a billion gallons of the sludge caused plenty of damage to the soil and water. Now, there’s concern about the air:

Transcript

Environmentalists don’t want a lot of new coal-burning power plants to be built. They’re concerned about more greenhouse gases from the plants and environmental damage from mining the coal. Late last year, another concern came to light. For decades a power plant disposed of coal ash in a pond next to it. The dam holding back the coal ash sludge failed. Matt Shafer Powell reports more than a billion gallons of the sludge caused plenty of damage to the soil and water. Now, there’s concern about the air:

In December, the massive coal ash spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in East Tennessee made people aware of a hazard they’d never really considered before. And no one knows how much of a problem it’s going to be.

“We’re looking across the Emory River.”

Matt Landon is a volunteer for the environmental group United Mountain Defense. These days, he spends a lot of time near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s ash spill site. His double respirator mask, his personal video camera and his vocal criticism of the T.V.A. have all become fixtures here. It was on one of his recent rounds near the Emory River that he saw something that scared him.

“I drove around the bend here on Emory River Road and I witnessed a massive dust storm coming off the entire coal ash disaster site.”

Landon says the dust cloud was about 70-to-80 feet high and about a half mile wide. Coal ash can contain several toxic heavy metals — like arsenic, lead, and mercury. For Landon, the site of this swirling cloud was a sobering and frightening reminder that it wouldn’t take much for the toxic materials contained in the wet cement-like sludge to dry out and become airborne.

When Landon walks up to Diana Anderson’s house on the Emory River, her shih-tzus go nuts. And no wonder. Here’s this tall, lanky guy in a double-respirator mask headed their way.

Anderson has lived here for forty years now, just downwind from the plant. And she never worried about it. But since the spill, she’s begun to notice changes in her health.

“My sinuses are irritated, I have a raspy throat, and I do a lot of coughing and my head hurts and I feel very, very, very fatigued.”

Anderson has volunteered to let Matt Landon test the air near her home. So, the two head to her kitchen sink, where they wash and prepare Pyrex dishes.

They’ll set the dishes out on Anderson’s back porch to collect dust. After a while, Landon will send the dust samples off to a lab to find out what’s in the air.

The T.V.A. is also testing the air, with help from the state of Tennessee and the E.P.A. T.V.A. Spokesman Gil Francis says they’ve already collected more than 10-thousand air samples.

“We’re taking samples 24/7, the samples are coming back that the air quality is meeting the National Air Ambient Standards and we’re going to continue to work hard to make sure that’s what the case is going forward.”

That might be easier said than done. Francis says the T.V.A. has done a lot to keep the ash from drying out and blowing around. They’ve dropped straw and grass seed from helicopters and coated the ash in an acrylic mixture. But Steven Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says nobody really knows what it’s going to take to clean this mess up. Or how the people who live downwind will be affected.

“There are still a lot of unknowns about this. We’ve never had an ash spill this size and I think people ought to err on the side of caution.”

If there’s one bit of consolation for the people living near the Kingston coal ash spill, it’s this: the National Weather Service says that during the summer months this region is among the least windy and most humid in the country.

For the Environment Report, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

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Feds Say No to Private Developers

For most of the last century, the federal
government has engaged in a practice known as “land
swapping.” That’s where the federal government sells
or trades land with private property owners. In recent
years, land swapping has become increasingly controversial
as developers build neighborhoods on previously undeveloped
public land. But one federal agency has put an end to the
practice. Some conservationists hope this recent development
represents a new era for the protection of federally-owned
land. Matt Shafer Powell reports:

Transcript

For most of the last century, the federal
government has engaged in a practice known as “land
swapping.” That’s where the federal government sells
or trades land with private property owners. In recent
years, land swapping has become increasingly controversial
as developers build neighborhoods on previously undeveloped
public land. But one federal agency has put an end to the
practice. Some conservationists hope this recent development
represents a new era for the protection of federally-owned
land. Matt Shafer Powell reports:


In the 1930s and 40s the federal government used eminent domain, or the threat of it, to
seize land all over the country. It bought up the land to build dams to make electricity.
One of the biggest projects took place in the Southeastern US. That’s where the federal
government created the Tennessee Valley Authority and flooded much of the Tennessee
River Valley. What was once deep gullies and hillsides became lakes and reservoirs
surrounded by forests. The TVA still owns about 300,000 acres of undeveloped land
throughout the region. For most of the last seventy years, the public has used this land
for recreation and conservation. Billy Minser is a wildlife biologist. He says the public
is very protective of that land:


“It provides outstanding public resource for recreation and beauty, it gives people a place to
rekindle the human spirit, a place to relax, hunt, fish, camp, bird watch or maybe to sit
home and think about how pretty the lakes are.”


In 2003, the TVA angered conservationists like Minser when it traded some of that land
to a residential developer, who built an upscale subdivision on it, and it happened again
last year with another swatch of pristine lakeshore property. Minser claims those deals
betrayed the public, but they also betrayed those families who lost their land to the
government years ago:


“If the government takes your house and bulldozes it down because it’s not enough value
and then sells it to me so I can build another house on it in the same place. Is that right?
That’s wrong. That is absolutely wrong and the public’s done with it.”


Land exchanges are nothing new. Federal agencies like the US Forest Service and the
Bureau of Land Management have been swapping land with private property owners and
state and local governments for decades. The practice is often used to fill in holes in
national forests or get rid of land that the government can’t use. Glenn Collins is with the
Public Lands Foundation. In some cases, he says the feds end up with more and better
land, but that means a lot of previously untouched land ends up in the hands of
developers:


“The federal lands that are placed into private ownership invariably go into development.
Either the land, the large blocks are subdivided into smaller blocks on paper, there may
be roads, improvements, it’ll be put up for sale.”


Over the years, the public has become increasingly wary of these land swaps. In the
Tennessee Valley, public outcry about the deals eventually forced a change in the TVA’s
philosophy. The agency’s Board of Directors recently voted to approve a new policy that
bans the sale or trade of TVA land to private residential developers:


“All those in favor of the committee’s policy on land, say aye.”


“Aye.”


“Opposed?”


“No.”
That one dissenting vote came from board member Bill Baxter, demonstrating the fact
that not everyone is wild about the ban. In explaining his “no” vote, Baxter echoed the
sentiments of economic development officials who worry that an all-out ban on
residential development will compromise their chances of attracting people and money to
the region. Baxter used the example of rural communities that would normally have a
hard time attracting industry:


“Perhaps their best hope for doing some economic development and increasing the tax
base so they can improve the schools for their kids and their roads and their health care is
to have some high-end residential development. It’s a beautiful part of the country and
we’re fortunate that a lot of people want to retire here.”


In the end, Baxter’s claims that residential development is economic development failed
to resonate with either the public or his colleagues on the board. After the vote at the
TVA’s board meeting, Michael Butler of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation called the
new policy a “monumental accomplishment.”


“I think it’s also part of a sound quality-of-life and tax policy into the future to look at
how we use conservation lands to really develop a sustainable way to have a growing
economy, which has got to be part of the equation, and to have a place where these
people can go enjoy themselves that isn’t in front of a television set all the time.”


The fact that the government used eminent domain to acquire a lot of the TVA’s land
means the people in the region are passionately vigilant about what happens to it, but the
public’s passion for land isn’t exclusive to the Tennessee Valley. And so the decisions
made here could have a long-term effect on the way the government approaches future
land exchanges throughout the country.


For the Environment Report, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

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Housing Developers Go Native

  • Views like this attract new housing developments around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo courtesty of the National Park Service.)

In recent years, the land surrounding America’s national parks has become attractive to residential developers. But the landscaping in these new neighborhoods can often feature aggressive, exotic plants, many of which threaten to choke out native plants. Now, a new program aims to keep these plants from sneaking their way into the nation’s most-visited park. As Matt Shafer Powell reports, the program depends upon an uncommon alliance of environmentalists and developers:

Transcript

In recent years, the land surrounding America’s national parks has become attractive to residential developers. But the landscaping in these new neighborhoods can often feature aggressive, exotic plants, many of which threaten to choke out native plants. Now, a new program aims to keep these plants from sneaking their way into the nation’s most-visited park. As Matt Shafer Powell reports, the program depends upon an uncommon alliance of environmentalists and developers:


Jason Love is standing next to a wall of roadside rock. He’s watching as the mimosa trees anchored in the rock wave in the wind from a passing stream of cars. The cars are all headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, only a few miles down the road. These days, he says the mimosas are a predictable part of the landscape for those visitors heading into the park.


“The mimosa was probably planted as an ornamental and from there, was spread by birds eating the seeds, and now, instead of just being in one place in one person’s yard, you can see it up and down the roadside here.”


Love is an ecologist with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. It’s an environmental education group that works with the Park Service. Love admits the mimosas are beautiful trees, with their brilliant spray of pink and white flowers and their strong perfume-like scent. His problem with them is that they’re killing off some of the plants that have called the Smokies home for thousands of years.


“We see more and more of these invasive exotics creeping up along the park’s edges and that makes it harder to control inside the park because just as birds brought this mimosa here beside us, these same birds go inside the park and carry these same seeds and then the park has to actively deal with it.”


And the park does deal with it the best it can. Each year, the Park Service spends a lot of money and time monitoring the plants inside the park and yanking out any invasives. The question is why, especially if the mimosas are so appealing. Back at the Tremont Institute, Love has a simple answer.


“We love this environment. This is the Smoky Mountains. It has over 130 species of trees, more than all of Europe. And when we bring in these invasive exotic plants, we are lessening that diversity, we’re making it a little less special.”


With new neighborhoods full of exotic invasives creeping toward the park, the park service and the Tremont institute decided the best way to address the problem was by educating developers. So they created a pilot program called the Native Landscape Certification Program. It’s a voluntary program where residential developers like Robin Turner promise to use only native plants in their landscaping schemes. Turner is currently developing a neighborhood on more than seven hundred wooded acres next to the park.


“That’s really why we’re all here. We’re here because of the beauty of this place, I mean we can pick anywhere in the country to live and we’ve picked this region because of the park and because of the National Forest and because of what’s here.”


Turner is sitting on the back porch of his sales office, a refurbished one room schoolhouse that stands only a few feet from a creek that dribbles through the development. He says he wants his exclusive – and expensive – development to blend in seamlessly with the natural landscape of the park. But he says it also has to make financial sense.


“It’s the right thing to do and it’s excellent business. I mean, we will make a very nice living doing this. I think our sales are higher and we’re getting higher prices because of what we’re doing.”


Ultimately, that’s what will determine the success or failure of such agreements. Meredith Clebsch runs an East Tennessee nursery that specializes in native plants.


“It comes down to money with them. Most of the time, they’re not going to be environmentalists like some of us might be, so they’re going to have to have a reason that it’s going to be beneficial to their pocketbook and you know, their customers have to want it.”


For the folks at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, this idea of ecologists and developers reading from the same page takes a little getting used to. Ken Vorhis is the Executive Director of the Tremont Institute. He says he often has some explaining to do to his environmentally conscious friends.


“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re joining up with the developers, aren’t you? Going over to the dark side?’ And we’re saying “No, these people want to do it right. There are going to be developments, we need economic development, those kinds of things, but can we do it in a way that makes more sense, that’s sustainable, a way that is environmentally friendly.”


Voorhis admits that the Native Landscape Certification Program isn’t going to resolve all of the friction between the forces of development and natural preservation. But he says it may be an important first step.


For the Environment Report, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

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Warming Trends to Increase Energy Demands

Researchers say as average temperatures rise in the US, the demand for energy will go up as well. The GLRC’s Matt Shafer Powell explains:

Transcript

Researchers say as average temperatures rise in the US, the demand for energy will go up
as well. The GLRC’s Matt Shafer Powell explains:


Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee say they loaded all kinds
of climate, pollution and population data into one of the lab’s supercomputers. As
expected, they found that demand for heating in the winter will drop as the earth warms,
but not enough to compensate for the higher demand for air conditioning in the summer.


David Erickson led the project. He says that could make the problem of global warming
even worse:


“You’re going to end up having to create electricity by burning of coal, which feeds back
and adds more CO2 into the atmosphere that causes warming.”


Erickson says the computer models they’ve created can be adjusted to adapt to any
changes in energy technology or policy.


For the GLRC, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

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FDA’S ROLE IN MERCURY MONITORING

Recent press reports indicate that the Food and Drug Administration may soon consider lifting a four-year moratorium on mercury testing in fish. But FDA officials say there never was a moratorium. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has more:

Transcript

Recent press reports indicate that the Food and Drug Administration may soon consider
lifting a four-year moratorium on mercury testing in fish. But FDA officials say there
never was a moratorium. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has
more:


Officials at the FDA say they take all possible food contamination seriously. As a result,
they say they never stopped testing for mercury in fish. Michael Bender of the Mercury
Policy Project believes that’s partially true. He says the FDA has continually done what’s
known as a “market basket survey”. That’s a small sampling of the most popular kinds
of fish. But he says the agency did scale back on more comprehensive testing four years
ago.


“They still continue with their market basket survey, so you can’t say they didn’t do any
testing. But, you know, in order to get an adequate sampling size, you’ve got to do
hundreds of samples.”


The FDA did issue an advisory last year about the dangers of eating too much of certain
kinds of predatory fish, like shark. But Bender says the agency used old data and old
standards to support the advisory. He says more comprehensive testing over the last few
years might have lead to warnings about other kinds of fish as well.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

GROUPS ORGANIZE ‘YEAR OF CLEAN WATER’

October 18th marks the thirty-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act and the kick-off to what’s being called the “Year of Clean Water.” Conservation groups throughout the country will also use the date to establish the first National Water Monitoring Day. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has more:

Transcript

October 18th marks the thirty-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act and the kick-off to what’s
being called the “Year of Clean Water.” Conservation groups throughout the country will also
use the date to establish the first National Water Monitoring Day. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has more:


Water quality experts have a lot of anecdotal evidence that lakes, streams, and rivers in the U.S.
aren’t as polluted as they were in 1972, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Robbi
Savage is President of America’s Clean Water Foundation.


“People are swimming where, thirty years ago, they never would have considered putting a toe
into the water. People are catching bass and other fish in areas where they never thought that that
fish would ever comeback to the waterways.”


Savage says the problem is that nobody really has definitive proof. That’s because a baseline of
national data wasn’t established thirty years ago. So the Clean Water Foundation and other
groups are using the October 18th date to ask citizens to test their local water and then submit the
results to a national database.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

Cash to Clean-Up Polluted Lake Sediments?

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would provide 250 million dollars to help clean up the bottom of the Great Lakes. A similar bill is currently working its way through the U.S. Senate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has this report:

Transcript

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would
provide two hundred and fifty million dollars to help clean up the bottom
of the Great Lakes. A similar bill is currently working its way through
the U.S. Senate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has
this report:


It takes a long time for water to find its way out of most of the Great
Lakes. For instance, Lake Superior can retain its water for more than 150
years. But that means that it also takes a long time for those lakes to get
rid of pollution. Representative Vern Ehlers of Michigan says that’s why the
government needs to step in and help…


“You know once a lake is contaminated, it’s contaminated for a very long
time. And if you’ve got non-biodegradable contaminants, you’ve got a major
problem.”


Ehlers was one of the sponsors of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which just
passed the House. If passed into law, the Act could provide money to the
EPA to assist in the clean up of polluted sediments on the lake floors.
Some scientists have linked those sediments to a variety of health problems,
including birth defects.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

Truckers Rush to Beat Epa Regs

Truck fleet owners are scrambling to order diesel trucks before new environmental regulations go into effect this fall. Since the beginning of the year, orders for new diesel trucks have gone up nearly seventy percent over the same period last year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has more:

Transcript

Truck fleet owners are scrambling to order diesel trucks before new
environmental regulations go into effect this fall. Since the beginning of
the year, orders for new diesel trucks have gone up nearly seventy percent
over the same period last year. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt
Shafer Powell has more:


The biggest reason for the sharp jump in orders is that truck fleet owners
are trying to buy as many trucks as possible before October 1st. That’s
when the EPA is going to require that trucks use newer, cleaner-burning
engines in them. Trucking industry analyst John Stark of “Stark’s News” says
these new engines will cost anywhere from three to five thousand dollars
more per truck.


“The trucking fleets are making a decision to try to beat the EPA
standards, not so much trying to be non-compliant with EPA standards, but
to avoid major price increases with these diesel engines.”


Last month, the EPA began to investigate claims that some engine
manufacturers were encouraging trucking companies to buy up the old-style
models. If true, that would be a violation of an agreement the
manufacturers made with the EPA back in 1998.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.

Forest Plan Hits a Snag

In the early 1800’s, the forests of the upper Great Lakes were dominated by enormous white pines. By the close of the century, most of these white pine forests had been cleared by aggressive loggers with little or no experience in forest management. Other species of trees like aspen began to flourish in the spaces where the white pines once grew, and the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were changed forever. Now, some environmental groups would like to see the forests returned to their natural state, and one group is taking the issue to court. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has this report:

Transcript

In the early 1800’s, the forests of the upper Great Lakes were dominated by enormous white pines. By the close of the century, most of these white pine forests had been cleared by aggressive loggers with little or no experience in forest management. Other species of trees like aspen began to flourish in the spaces where the white pines once grew, and the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were changed forever. Now, some environmental groups would like to see the forests returned to their natural state… and one group is taking the issue to court. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has this report:

(Natural sound: walking through snow)

This patch
of land in Michigan’s Huron-Manistee National Forest was clear-cut last year. That means all the aspen trees were cut down, fed into a chipper, and hauled away to make particleboard and paper. All that was left was a wide-open field. A dense stubble of new growth is already emerging from the snow, though — a forest recreating itself. But here’s what bothers Marv Roberson, a forest policy specialist for the Sierra Club:
Nearly all of the new trees are aspens…

“You can see coming up, aspen that’s most of it less than a year old, some of it’s three feet tall already, and since it comes from root suckers, what it’s done is it’s gotten a head start on all the competition, so next summer when all these little trees have their leaves out, the floor of what used to be a forest and will be again, will have shade on it and so a lot of the smaller trees that want to come up from seeds that didn’t get a chance this summer won’t be able to.”

Aspens are known as
a “pioneer species.” Whenever there’s a major disturbance — a fire, a tornado, or clear-cut — aspens recover quickly. And they take over, squeezing out any other species that might try to grow there. Roberson says he doesn’t believe that would happen nearly as often if the forests weren’t clear-cut. He says the aspens would eventually grow old, die and fall down. And then, in the absence of a major disturbance, the white pines would thrive again.

It’s enough of an issue that the Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit against the United States Forest Service. The group is asking that the Forest Service do a study to analyze the long-term effects of clear-cutting aspen on federal land. In the meantime, they’re asking for a moratorium on aspen logging in certain parts of the national forests…

“The reason for our lawsuit is not to stop the harvesting of aspen. The reason for the lawsuit is to get the forest service to do an analysis of what the effects are. We’re right now going through the biggest forest experiment in North American history. We’re altering the kinds of forests that we have and we don’t know what the long term results are.”

The lawsuit has suddenly raised the stakes in what has been an on going discussion about the future of the national forests. Every ten to fifteen years, the Forest Service creates a new management plan for each National Forest in the Great Lakes region. The discussion often involves representatives from environmental organizations, wildlife preservation groups and timber companies. But it rarely ends up in court. Forest
Service officials are not allowed to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit. But Regional Planner Sam Emmons says any decisions on forest planning involve a lot of thought, foresight and input from the public…

“The Forest Service is looking for a diversity of timber species and diversity of wildlife habitats and understands that whatever transitions that are made have some effect on the local sawmills and pulp mills and the folks who live up in the North Woods.”

The forests are an important part of life in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The federal government estimates that logging and forest-related activities annually contribute nearly 30 billion dollars to the economies of just those three states. For many of those who live in the region, logging is what pays the bills. Jim Schmierer of Michigan Technological University’s Forestry Program says residents in the Upper Great Lakes forests approach issues about the forests with a blend of intelligence, experience and passion…

“Maybe grandpa was a logger or they’ve been managing a family woodlot for fifty years and so there’s a real strong connection to the land in a lot of cases up here with people who that are very familiar with forest practices, so it’s kinda unique, a much different situation than some in the west, so definitely an interesting dynamic here.”

For that reason, the Sierra Club lawsuit has created some resentment among those who make their living from logging aspen. John Lamy is President of the Timber Producers Association of Michigan and Wisconsin. He says the Forest Service’s management plans involve a lot of public input and compromise. He says he doesn’t understand why the Sierra Club had to get the courts involved…

“I just feel that since everybody had a chance to participate in the plan and develop the plan and that plan has been approved that we should allow that process to go forward and the Sierra Club is choosing to go through the courts to change a major part of that plan.”

Marv Roberson of the Sierra Club says his group has been trying to work within the system. But he says the Forest Service isn’t getting the message. So the lawsuit is simply a last resort. In the end, the Sierra Club may be getting its way even without the lawsuit. Since the 1960’s the aspen population in the upper Great Lakes has actually declined. Roberson acknowledges this and offers this analogy: If a patient’s temperature goes from one hundred five degrees to one hundred three degrees, he might be getting better. But he’s still sick.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.