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Rules of engagement / March 27, 2014
It may have earned its nickname, “Tiger Beat On The Potomac” — for that priceless little jab, you can thanks Esquire blogger Charlie Pierce — but Politico, the on-line news magazine that keeps tabs on what the cool kids in Washington, D.C., are up to, published a very interesting piece this week on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s work to develop new regulations for coal ash.

You can find the entire thing — “EPA’s Coal Ash Rule Still Not Done” — at I’ll just to cut to the chase so far as we Dan River denizens are concerned:

In the past five-plus years, EPA has produced more than 200 pages of proposed rules, received more than 600,000 written comments and outlined two possible approaches to clamp down on companies that produce and stockpile the stuff.

The end is finally in sight, with crucial deadlines approaching in the next nine months. But EPA still hasn’t made it clear exactly what its final rules will look like …. The draft rules EPA has released so far wouldn’t have affected dormant storage sites like the one in North Carolina.

The aforementioned “dormant storage site” in North Carolina, of course, is the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., where 39,000 tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of slurry water spilled into the Dan last month. If you’re starting to get a bad feeling about where this is all headed, wait, there’s more:

Environmentalists say February’s North Carolina spill inspires doubts about EPA’s strategy.

“I think the North Carolina spill raises the question of whether the final rule addresses the risky and dangerous situation that we have with old surface impoundments that are not currently active,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, who is involved in litigation over the delay.

EPA has the authority to regulate coal ash ponds that are no longer taking on waste, as was the case with Duke’s North Carolina plant, Evans said. But its proposed rules would not.

The EPA’s problem here is plain: It’s trying to thread a needle between environmental groups that keep suing to enforce the letter of the Clean Water Act, and utilities that, in Politico’s breathless construction, argue “the rules’ costs could be crippling” and “could run in the billions of dollars.”

Of course, the most credible low-ball estimate for the damage to the Dan River and its communities is $70 million — the Wake Forest University professor responsible for coming up with that figure has said the real toll is probably going to be 5-10 times higher — so industry complaints that properly disposing of coal ash would cost “billions of dollars” should be viewed in context. The worst of the coal ash spills, in Kingston, Tenn., in 2008, left the Tennessee Valley Authority with a clean-up bill of $1.2 billion. Now that Duke Energy has made a mess of the Dan, it, too, will have to spend gobs to reverse the damage to the river and haul off the million tons of ash that still remain at the Eden facility.

A few more disasters such as these, and maybe even the utilities will wise up to the hoary notion that spending money up front sometimes means you don’t have to spend a great deal more of it later.

Amid the richly-deserved Duke bashing that’s been all the rage lately, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that other utility companies have rejected the sort of recklessness for which Duke “We’re better than this” Energy will now be long associated. The good folks at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who’ve been on Duke’s case about its waste ash dumps for some time now, are quick to point to two South Carolina utilities that voluntarily decided to transfer ash deposits away from the state’s rivers and lakes, in contrast to Duke’s reckless storage practices. Aside from being the right thing to do, removing the ash allowed the companies to strike a potential 8-to10-figure expense from their risk management portfolios.

Why did Duke choose a different course — and why is EPA being less-than-resolute in ruling that ash dumps and rivers have no business co-existing? It’s hard to know for sure, although the Politico piece makes a cursory note that “political opposition is heavy” (congressmen spouting off about job-killing regulations anyone?) and “costs are an even bigger issue these days for a coal industry struggling to keep its longtime dominance in the market.” Indeed, the coal barons are having a heck of a time competing with the natural gas guys. And lest you believe every bit of nonsense proffered about “job-killing regulations,” keep in mind that one of Southside’s biggest job-creating projects — the new Dominion natural gas-fired power plant in Lawrenceville, which will employ up to 600 construction workers — came about in large part because utilities face more stringent rules for coal-burning projects. Regulation isn’t a zero-sum game, and sometimes it produces as many winners as losers.

The Politico piece does offer one bit of hopeful news: Although EPA’s new rules may not placate critics still sore about Duke’s derelictions on the Dan, the agency is signaling that it will strongly encourage best practices for the storage of ash wastes. The upshot of this can be expressed in two words: dry fills. The question arises from time to time — how does the Clover Power Station deal with its ash wastes? — and there’s your answer right there. Halifax County’s lone coal-fired plant, jointly owned by Dominion and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, has a dry storage bed for ash wastes, and Clover also turns over its leftovers to companies that use the ash for a variety of construction purposes. (This is common practice, as noted by Politico: “More than 75 percent of the concrete used in the nation’s infrastructure contains partial blends of coal ash, according to the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry coalition.”) As long as we burn coal for electricity, we’ll face the problem of what to do with the toxic byproducts. Embedding the ash in concrete is much better than spilling it into a river, although the larger question, by far, is deciding just how long we intend to rely on such a dirty fuel to meet our energy demands.

In unrelated news this week, researchers at MIT announced they have found a way to grow cells that conduct electricity out of bacteria, which might in turn unlock a process for producing photovoltaic solar panels for next to nothing. The march of progress, it seems, never can march quite fast enough.


Also in the headlines this week: State Senator Frank Ruff of Clarksville, whose district includes the eastern part of Halifax County, found his mug popping up in The Huffington Post, Salon and at other well-trafficked Internet news sites. Ruff’s stint in the news, alas, wasn’t so cheery — coverage of our senator ricocheted around the Internet at turbo-charged speeds and left the impression, right or wrong, that the “R” that routinely is tagged behind Ruff’s name stands for something other than “Republican.” What did Ruff do? He used the term “tar baby” to describe Medicaid expansion in Virginia. With the masses arguing over whether a racial slur had been employed, the webs exploded. Spiderman, eat your heart out.

Ruff made the tar baby reference at a Danville breakfast meeting, prompting the city’s incensed mayor, an African-American, to walk out in the middle of Ruff’s talk. A Virginian Pilot reporter got wind of the affair, and once the story hit the wires, it was like: Boom. Only I had a different reaction: Meh. I have many, many, many (I’ll stop now) criticisms of Frank Ruff, but being a racist isn’t one of them. The senator said he was unaware the phrase was construed by many as offensive and he apologized for using it, and honestly I don’t know what else he is supposed to do.

So good for Senator Ruff. It is, after all, pretty easy to say something that rubs someone else the wrong way. And it’s a shame that Ruff would be slammed as a bigot by the incessant spout-off Internet brigades. This said, Ruff’s critics would be on firmer ground if they focused on his opposition to Medicaid expansion in Virginia — the topic that gave rise to the wayward remark — and all the ways that his position is political, budgetary and especially a moral disgrace. That goes double for the serial dishonesty that Ruff and fellow Republican opponents have evinced throughout the Medicaid debate. They’ve yet to offer an argument that doesn’t fall apart upon even cursory inspection, although I suppose Ruff & Co. must figure if they keep spouting the same nonsense over and over again, some of it might stick. One need not have sympathy for people who act so cynically, to the detriment of their low-income constituents (and the medical providers who treat them), but Ruff did get a bit of bum rap with the tar-baby contretemps. It just goes to show: If there’s anything more useless than another no-account politician, it’s an Internet flame war in full blaze.

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