In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 250 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: the North Carolina spill and the state of coal ash regulation.
On February 2, a power plant owned by Duke Energy in Eden, North Carolina spilled 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash, 27 million gallons of tainted water, and roughly 7,200 pounds of arsenic into the Dan River. The spilled coal ash turned the river gray for 20 miles east of the North Carolina border. Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring vowed to hold Duke responsible for the cleanup. The plant is located six miles upstream of the public drinking water intake for Danville, Virginia. Meanwhile, North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 30 years, is being criticized for creating an atmosphere where the penalties for polluting the environment are low.
The Explanation (250 or Bust)
Each year, coal plants across the United States produce more than 100 million tons of “coal ash,” a generic term which refers to several distinct materials produced when coal is combusted to produce electricity. And each year, the industry’s aging infrastructure places the public at risk. Currently, there are more than 2,000 storage sites around the country, including over 400 dry landfills and 676 wet ash ponds, most of which are built on rivers and lakes.
Big spills like the one in North Carolina are somewhat rare, but their not impossible. And the health hazards are real: coal ash often contains toxic elements like selenium, mercury, and lead, which can pose health risks to humans and wildlife. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 45 wet ash ponds around the country that are “high hazard,” meaning that a failure at that site will “probably cause loss of human life.”
For nearly 75 years, however, coal-burning power plants have enjoyed a free pass from federal rules. Since the 1980s, lawmakers have disagreed over whether to treat the ash as a “hazardous waste,” which would obligate coal power plants to comply with complex regulations.
In 2010, EPA proposed the first-ever rules to regulate coal ash. In response, utility companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying to kill the proposed rules, and House Republicans passed two bills in 2012 that would have prevented coal ash from being deemed “hazardous.”
The pigeons are now coming home to roost.
Word Count: 248
The Five Most Interesting Things We’ve Read This Week
Here are the five most interesting articles (both political and non-political) we’ve read this week:
- “In any other area of medicine, if your doctor told you that the cure for your disease involved surrendering to a ‘higher power,’ praying to have your ‘defects of character’ lifted, and accepting your ‘powerlessness,’ as outlined in the original 12 steps, you’d probably seek a second opinion.” From Maia Szalavitz in Pacific Standard: After 75 Years of Alcoholics Anonymous, It’s Time to Admit We Have a Problem.
- Crash test dummies are valuable, but they don’t perfectly simulate humans. Take kids, for example. “Their tissue is still developing and more prone to internal injuries. So while [Francisco Lopez-Valdez, lead engineer at a public research center in Spain called TESSA,] will learn a lot from today’s infant dummy, soon, he said, his data will vastly improve. To explain, he takes me into a brightly lit room, right next to the test track. It’s TESSA’s brand new morgue, complete with freezers where they’ll soon be storing human cadavers, donated to science.” From PRI: Europe takes a cue from US and decides to use cadavers to make cars safer.
- It all started selling books. But now, “Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Parts Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a packaging service, like U.P.S.” George Packer in The New Yorker: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?
- Watch: “GoPro Falls From Plane, Lands In Pig Pen, Gets Attacked By Pig.” Yes. You read that correctly.
- “It was just too addictive.” The creator of Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen on why he mysteriously withdrew the free game from circulation. From The Wall Street Journal.
And in case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week examined one issue the media has neglected in the Hobby Lobby case against Obamacare’s contraception mandate. Read the Column – The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is Unconstitutional.