Coal Ash and the Pebble Effect

Coal Ash and the Pebble Effect - article image

Coal Ash… it’s what’s on everyone’s mind in our community these days. I’ve been reading up on it this week and trying to educate myself a little more about the harmful effects these heavy metals have on us as a whole. The more I read the more I’m reminded of this pebble in still water effect. When you drop a pebble in the water, watch the circles grow.  We have pebbles of heavy metal contamination. In my mind’s eye I can see those pebbles drop and the negative effects continue to spread and spread affecting more than our health. Yes, our health and our children’s health is at the top of our concerns at the moment as it should be. But I can see how other things will be affected too such as our forests and wildlife, our rivers and crops. Even the economy could take a turn for the worse as these contaminants leach into every aspect of our lives. 

Some of you may be asking, “What exactly is coal ash?” Coal ash, or coal combustion residuals (CCRs), is produced primarily from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants. When referring to coal ash it can be one of several by-products including fly ash, bottom ash or boiler slag to name a few. The Environmental Protection Agency does a good job of breaking that down here

So we find that the issue with coal ash is that it contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. While these heavy metals randomly appear in our environment from time to time, the issue is with “exposure” which is defined as “a function of concentration and time”. This article in the Oxford Journals tells us that “for exposure to happen… co-existence of heavy metals and people has to occur.”  And here in lies the problem we are facing with coal ash dumping in our landfills. This would create a co-existence. Will there be problems on day 1 or day 30 or even day 365? Maybe or maybe not, but with bioaccumulation (increased levels over time) occurring with the continued dumping, these heavy metals will leach into the soil and into our water supply and subsequently into our crops which will effect us and our children and grandchildren in the near future and years to come. 

So with these few facts, one can envision the impact this coal ash dumping could potentially have on our community. One can google “heavy metal contamination” and find an unlimited supply of articles and websites dedicated to warning the population on what this potentially looks like to our health. Looking further at the outer circles of this toxic pebble drop, I see that it will potentially affect our economy, too. Land will be less valuable if it’s a known fact that these heavy metals have leached into the soil and the trees and the wildlife that inhabits these places. I found an article written by the European Commission giving insight into the heavy metal pollution on forests. They actually did a study over a period of years. You can read the whole study here, but the results show that the heavy metals affected the root, total leaf area on the trees, and it reduced the water efficiency of the trees. So our timber production could potentially be affected. Taking it one step further, we have recreational enthusiasts who also invest in land because they want to hunt the wildlife. I’ve grown up around hunters my whole life and I don’t know one hunter that doesn’t eat his catch! The potential problem is that these wildlife will be eating the vegetation in these forests that have been contaminated. It will potentially leach into our rivers as well which will affect the aquatic animals that we fish for and eat. It could also leach into our water supply. We may can get around drinking this water but it is used to irrigate our crops and fill our bathtubs. So now we are finding ourselves exposed on a much larger level than just being near the dumpsites. 

I believe, according to articles I’ve read and people I’ve talked to, that money is definitely a deciding factor for a lot of those making the decisions in our county. There are definitely pros to allowing the coal ash dumping, but does this increase in revenue outweigh the potential dangers to us and our future generations? If my humble opinion counts, I vote “NO” it doesn’t. Our health and our future are worth far more and the potential fail in economy, health, and productivity in our county could cost us a lot more than the revenue it brings in. We could look to the towns that have been affected by the coal ash dumping, such as Uniontown, Alabama. This article by Huffington Post gives some insight into the harsh reality of allowing coal ash into that small community. It touches on what we have talked about here even down to how the residents are stuck there because their land and homes have become worthless. There was another article from NBC News that was chilling. It stated that those dumping the coal ash had a “seeming disregard for their community” when months earlier this same person witnessed the cleanup from the 2008 spill in Tennessee. “The cleanup workers [were] in hazmat suits, gloves and masks handling coal ash as if it were a hazardous material…” It begs the question of why it was hazardous in an affluent community but not so hazardous in this poor town imposed upon with coal ash dumping? 

I believe we are not that community. We are not the ones to allow this to happen without doing our homework and finding all the facts. My mom raised me on the couplet “when in doubt, do without”. I believe this qualifies as one of those times. The revenue would be nice for our county. However, is this increase worth what we could potentially lose, what other counties have lost? Our company verse is Proverbs 22:1, “Choose a good reputation over great riches; being held in high esteem is better than silver and gold.” Perfect wisdom for such a time as this. There is hope and prayer that our leaders will find the courage to do what is right for our community regardless of any revenue that may be unrealized. 


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Christy, this is a great article. Thanks for taking the time to put down your thoughts on this topic that is truly effecting us all. Southeast Georgia as a whole should take a stand and stop this before it is allowed to go any further. It's our responsibility to make sure that our land goes unspoiled for generations to come.

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