A Tale of Two Dickensian Disasters: Coal and Tar

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Right now, it’s mostly the worst of times for the environment — and hence the health and well-being of current and future generations.

Coal ash deposits in the USA are now under renewed scrutiny after a giant spill just before Christmas released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge into Tennessee waterways. Water tests near the spill from the Kingston Fossil Plant showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders. The spill muddied the waters in the Emory river and is flowing into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

So now a big question mark hangs over the hundreds of coal plants all across the country which store their fly ash in unlined embankments and ponds — like the one that failed last week. Most are situated near rivers that supply water needed by the coal plants to operate.

The NY Times reported that in the US, coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year. It’s the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste, and it’s storage and handling is unregulated. Who knew?

It is yet another measure of the high price of addiction to fossil fuels, which is not only polluting the air and warming the earth, but fouling the nation’s terrestrial and aquatic environment as well. The Tennessee coal spill is a wake up call not only for the coal industry, but the oil industry as well, and not only for America but for Canada, too.

Both nations, still in pursuit of endless supplies of fossil energy, are collaborating on the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands whose byproduct will be spills like the one in Tennessee, only on steroids.

In Alberta, visible from outer space, are 23 squares miles of unstable, unregulated and leaking man-made “tailings ponds” holding the toxic leavings of the mining process. A dam breach is only a matter of time.

Required reading on this subject is Andrew Nikiforuk’s new book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, recently published to wide acclaim in Canada and set for US release in March. In this context, one chapter in particular called “The Ponds” is of direct and chilling relevance:

…there is no denying that the world’s biggest energy project has spawned one of the world’s most fantastic concentrations of toxic waste, producing enough sludge every day (400 million gallons) to fill 720 Olympic pools….

The ponds are truly a wonder of geotechnical engineering. Made from earth stripped off the top of open-pit mines, they rise an average of 270 feet above the forest floor like strange, flat-topped pyramids. By now, the ponds hold more than four decades worth of contaminated water, sand and bitumen…..

The ponds are a byproduct of bad design and industry’s profligate water abuse. Of the twelve barrels of water needed to make on barrel of bitumen, approximately three barrels become mudlike tailings….

Perhaps the biggest enviromental risk is an accidental breach. Earthquakes and extreme weather events can make a rubble of even the best-engineered dykes and could cause a domino-like failure of other nearby ponds….

Engineers and ecologists agree that the tailings ponds pose a substantial risk to Canada’s largest river basin….

For now leaks from the ponds remain a constant challenge….most tar sands tailings ponds seep so badly that they’ve created toxic wetlands near their bases.

The ponds became world famous earlier this year when 500 migrating ducks landed on one of them. As Nikiforuk recounts, “Many of the migrating visitors were buffleheads, keen divers that slipped under the water and never resurfaced.” It wasn’t long before the Prime Minister was apologizing. But of course, nothing much has changed. The tailings ponds continue to grow at a daily pace that is mind-boggling.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, the clean-up of the toxic coal ash is continuing. But let’s not kid ourselves — that’s not the real disaster, merely a symptom of the larger ongoing disaster we’ve been ignoring for decades that has suddenly erupted into public view.

Our historic and continuing reliance on fossil energy is creating a stream of waste — in the air, on the land and in the water — that is already drowning us in our own filth.

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11 Responses to A Tale of Two Dickensian Disasters: Coal and Tar

  1. Ronald says:

    I’m just wondering 3 things about this coal ash.

    What percentage of coal is coal ash? If 100 tons of coal goes into a burner, how many tons come out as coal ash?

    If this coal comes from Wyoming, which alot of it does, once the coal is burned, couldn’t the coal ash go back to the open pit mines that it came from? Or go back to whatever openpit mine it came from?

    If this coal came from below ground coal mines, couldn’t this coal ash go back into the coal mines the coal came out of? In alot of these coal mines, they leave alot of the coal in the ground so the mines don’t cave in. Could they fill in the removed coal with coal ash to stabalize the ceilings?

    I don’t know much about the industry and I’m sure there are reasons the industry doesn’t do this, whether legal, economic or just plain don’t want to. It seems the railroad cars are just coming back empty anyway, why not have something in them. (factoid, half of railroad tonnage is coal)

  2. mauri pelto says:

    And we worry about nuclear waste disposal, which is solid, highly immobile and for Yucca Mountain is planned to be buried 2000 feet down in dry impermeable rock. I left out many safeguards. For coal and tar sand waste it is a good point that we do not regulate them as a significant hazard despite the impact of simple leachate, let alone a failure as was seen in Tenn.

  3. Brian D says:

    As an Albertan, I seem to recall our glorious premier, Ed Stelmach, doing something different in response to the tailings pond disaster — reminding us how many birds get killed in wind turbines (and getting that number off by, IIRC, an order of magnitude), so what’s the big deal about 500, and so on. This is the same man who decided to cut his own province out of most of the royalties from the tar sands, and who campaigned on a tar sands platform of “no brakes” (verbatim quote).

  4. David Lewis says:

    I bought Andrew Nikiforuk’s book “Tar Sands….” as I am researching and thinking about this colossal fossil fuel deposit. I didn’t like his overblown writing style, and the book is inaccurate and contradictory, to the point I discarded it as not valuable because I came to believe anything in it would have to be double checked.

    Overblown: “”many tar sand projects puff out nearly a million tons of carbon dioxide a year…. … a million tons – a megaton – is enough lethal carbon dioxide to fill one million two-storey, three-bedroom homes and suffocate every occupant”. If you like writing like this you’ll love this book. I don’t know how the exhaust streams from tar sands processing plants could ever fill one home and suffocate one occupant, but this is what he’s written. I believe he’s trying to associate CO2 with other lethal waste products such as high level nuclear waste, as many who oppose carbon capture do, but who knows. If you piled a million tons of Nikiforuk’s books high enough and they all fell on an apartment block, no doubt someone would die, but is this relevant?

    Inaccurate and contradictory: He states it “will cost anywhere from $10 billion to $16 billion” to “inject twenty megatons” of CO2, which works out by my calculation as $500 to $800 a ton. No one in the rest of the world publishes figures like this. Not much farther on, he cites another source which according to my calculations is $400 a ton, then he blithely moves on to the IPCC citing $25 to $115 a ton. All this in the space of a few pages.

    Carbon capture according to Nikiforuk, “defies economics”, and is “morally bankrupt”. Personally, I prefer cost figures to be put into terms I can understand, such as cost in dollars per barrel of tar sand oil processed from the tar sands, and I don’t care about the moral bankruptcy of removing a pollutant from a waste stream, I care if it is possible and if it will prove to be economic.

    Its funny how the anti carbon capture types want us to listen to the scientists, i.e. the IPCC, and decide we should do something about climate change, but they then don’t want us to listen to scientists, i.e. the IPCC, who call for limiting emissions by capturing carbon. I don’t know what Nikiforuk’s record is as a climate campaigner.

    Regarding all the ballyhoo about how mining the tar sands causes terrible destruction, I did a back of the envelope calculation about how much it would cost to reclaim the land after mining. Greenpeace cites a study that says it cost $130,000, I think CDN dollars, to reclaim one hectare, as if this implies it would be impossible to pay this much given how much land is being distrurbed. I came out with a figure of less than $1 per barrel of oil produced, if industry was forced to set aside that much per hectare of land it mined in a fund for restoration. This puts the issue into a different perspective, for me, as it is a failure of regulation rather than a product of mining.

  5. David B. Benson says:

    Biocrude, anyone?

    Does not seem to be that much progress in only two years.

  6. darth says:

    Interesting arguments from David Lewis, with no facts to back them up of course.

    So how much does CCS cost today? How about an example of a commercial process that is running today, that would be a great source of data. Oh wait, there are none. Hmm, wonder why?

    And certainly $1 per barrel will pay for land reclamation. Umm, how do you come up with that?

    And obviously CO2 is not a problem because a writer used a scary analogy to represent the amount being produced.

    Lame, lame lame. You’ll have to do better than that.

  7. David Lewis says:

    The CCS figures are from Nikiforuk’s book. He discusses CCS for a few pages, starting on page 124. My point was Nikiforuk stated contradictory figures on CCS cost, and several of his figures were so much higher than any other authority I ever read, such as the IPCC, MIT, and McKinsey they appeared preposterous. I want someone’s opinion, i.e. if he thinks it costs this much, fine, but Nikiforuk says it costs this much, then this much then that much, and it doesn’t make any sense.

    An example of CCS running now at pilot scale, i.e. 30 MW, is the Schwarze Pumpe station in Germany. That is an interesting plant because they burn coal in pure O2 and just cool and compress the nearly pure CO2 exhaust without having to separate it from nitrogen. They are aiming for greater than 95% capture. A good summary of the CCS literature remains the IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage, as is the MIT The Future of Coal study, as is the more recent McKinsey report CCS Assessing the Economics report.

    All parts of the technology exist at commercial full scale in other industries. It is a mistake campaigners are making to oppose implementation of a pollution control technology or claim that it does not exist, rather than to advocate that industry be forced to install it or go out of business. Its weird to listen to industry arguments such as oh my god this will cost too much, this is just not feasible now, it will be too hard to develop, its too dangerous, etc coming out of the mouths of environmental campaigners regarding a pollution control technology.

    From what I gather as I study Stephen Chu, Obama’s appointee to head the DOE, he agrees the CCS technology is ready to be implemented at full scale as Obama campaigned on (five full scale plants) and his main reservation is not about the cost of the capture, but that the storage of CO2 will be a challenge on the legal front from NIMBY attacks, as well as it needs to be carefully studied as it is implemented to verify that it indeed stays underground as the scale is ramped up. Chu really doesn’t like coal power, for all the usually cited reasons, especially the radiation emissions, but he signs off recommending coal power with CCS as he did in the IAC “Lighting the Way” report he co-chaired, perhaps because of the importance of coal for the developing world, and the importance what the developing world does has for us. We need to prove out CCS if only to transfer the technology to the developing world so what they do with coal doesn’t finish us off. The UNDP has mentioned that if the developed world does not come up with CCS and finance the transfer of the technology to the developing world an international agreement to limit emissions will not be possible.

    My back of the envelope calculation on land reclamation cost per barrel in the tar sand area was done this way:

    Apparently, the 170 billion barrels of proven reserve is 80% located in a 3,400 square km area. This gives 136 billion barrels divided by 340,000 hectares which gives 400,000 barrels per hectare. $130,000, the Pembina figure quoted by Greenpeace for reclamation, for one hectare, divided by 400,000 barrels gives 32.5 cents per barrel to reclaim.

    I was a bit astonished to see it work out this way. I state the 32.5 cents as “less than $1 a barrel” to hedge the figure a bit as it seems so preposterously low to me. I put it forward as food for thought, and let’s see someone contradict it with better figures. All I did was do a bit of searching with Google and some simple math. I’m tired of rhetoric that would say there is this impossibly huge problem – I want to see figures expressed in terms I can understand, in this case, cost per barrel of oil produced to reclaim the land. I found no one was putting figures in this format forward, so I attempted to produce a figure myself.

    I’m researching the tar sands still, which was the reason I bought Nikiforuk’s book and read it. I was disappointed with it as a source for reliable information and said so in case anyone was interested.

    This lethal CO2 line of Nikiforuk’s is just one example of his rhetoric. The book is full of this kind of what I think is overblown rhetoric: buy it and read it, if you don’t agree with my observation, you’ll love the book. Coupled with the contradictions, this book is just not my cup of tea.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    David Lewis — Enhanced mineral weathering permanently removes the excess CO2 by exothermic conversion to carbonates. There is enough suitable rock for all the excess ever added (and lots more). By two slightly different techniques a cost of $15 or less per tonne of CO2 appears correct. By a third, the cost is probably much less. One of the first two can probably just use flue gas (from which the sulfur is removed); the other uses the fact that tropical rain forest soils have 100x air CO2 concentrations. The third perhaps requires a gas with a higher concentratin of CO2, implying some form of CO2 capture.

    Rather amazingly, I estimate that if biomass which is 1/3 carbon can be obtained for $60 per tonne at a digester, the whole operation runs at a profit by selling biomethane at $5/(28 m^3), a price below the current US natural gas spot price of $5.826/(28 m^3). That is, one can make some money while permanently removing carbon diioxide.

  9. David Lewis says:

    David Benson – Re: enhanced mineral weathering. Can you post links to the highest quality sources you have explaining the process and potential, as well as links to the best sources you have of individuals or groups endorsing the idea as potentially significant on a global scale?

  10. David B. Benson says:

    David Lewis — Nobody that I know has posted about ‘global scale’. I’m currently trying to understand how enhanced weathering can be used to remove more than, say, 30% of current emissions. (I’m hopeful).

    I’ll provide just one link, because otherwise the comment goes to moderation. Here are ‘posters’ which explain ‘ex situ’ enahnced, uncontrolled weathering. It is correct except that by using a tropical site for the dunite (olivine), the price (according to Olaf Schuiling) will be about $15 per tonne of CO2 removed:

    I’m still working on my paper which modifies this to use controlled reactions, hence could in principal be done where-ever suitable rock masses exist near the surface. (Also, wikipedia seems to have done quite a good job of picking up on this; see the olivine page there.)

    The ‘in situ” method has recently been proposed, nothing more. Searching for “periodite Oman in situ” ought to turn up suitable references. This technique perhaps requires some form of carbon capture. If not, it will certainly be the least expensive. (Follow up is at the peridotite page on Wikipedia.)