State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


After Florence: Improving the Management of Toxic Materials

After a typhoon hit Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, it left radioactive contamination in its wake. Last year, it was Houston’s petrochemical industry that caught fire, got flooded, and leaked toxic chemicals into that region’s streets and waterways. And this year it’s poisons from North Carolina’s pig farms and coal burning power plants. As Glenn Thrush and Kendra Pierre-Louis reported in the New York Times last week:

“With floodwaters continuing to rise in the wake of Hurricane Florence, state officials and environmentalists are closely monitoring the breach of a dam that has flooded a hazardous stockpile of coal ash, some of which has spilled into the Cape Fear River. On Friday, Duke Energy shut down a power plant near Wilmington after a dam breach between 100 and 200 feet wide, at the south end of Sutton Lake, allowed floodwaters to swamp two basins containing huge stockpiles of arsenic-laced ash… Coal ash is not the only pollutant to cause North Carolina woes in the wake of Florence. The state is home to 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure each year. Most of that manure is stored in large earthen lagoons. In the wake of Florence and the record-breaking amount of water the storm has poured onto the region, a growing number of those lagoons are flooding.”

In a world where climate change is increasing the number and intensity of storms and more people and industry are in the pathway of the impact of these storms, we need to rethink the standards we set for toxic materials and waste storage. We should start to assume that floods, high winds, forest fires and earthquakes will occur in the places that house toxic materials. We need to build our toxic storage and processing facilities to withstand the impacts of extreme weather events. We need to also detoxify our technology to the extent we can. Nuclear contamination and the toxics from burned coal can be eliminated by renewable energy. We have many reasons to transition to clean energy, and this is yet another argument for renewables. Assuming as I do that people will not be giving up their bacon anytime soon, pig waste needs to be reprocessed and detoxified and not left floating in ponds and lagoons.

Extreme weather events should challenge traditional notions of effective hazardous materials management. Well established forms of material and waste containment may not work anymore. This means that we need to deploy brainpower and financial resources to ensure that our toxic waste management system is tougher and more resilient than the current system. The financial costs of cleaning up toxics that escape inadequate facilities will be much higher than the costs of building stronger waste management facilities. Moreover, the health and ecological impacts of failing to remediate releases of toxic substances will cause both physical and financial loss. Toxics are equal opportunity poisons. They harm both rich and poor, and don’t care about anyone’s race, ethnicity or immigration status. Poor people are more exposed to toxics than rich people, but everyone who is exposed is at risk.

Given the anti-regulatory fervor gripping the federal government and this administration’s delusional approach to climate change, I don’t expect to see any federal policy or money directed toward addressing this issue. But it is not going away. Those harmed by the toxic releases in Texas and North Carolina will sue when they are able to definitively determine the companies that have caused them harm. And my expectation is that five to ten years from now some of the financial impact of these lawsuits will be in the news and on our political agenda.

Since many of the impacts of toxic releases are limited to single states and even single towns and counties, the most realistic approach to reducing the danger from toxics in the United States would be stronger state and local rules. Building codes, zoning and other land use rules could be employed to provide communities with better protection from releases of toxic substances. Our economic dependence on these businesses will act as a political counterforce to new rules, but could also open up the possibility of a dialogue between these businesses and their home towns about what is needed and how to fund it. A state funded tax credit for new steps taken to reduce toxic releases might be considered.

After a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, many damaged facilities need to be reconstructed. We saw that here in New York after Hurricane Sandy. The point at which damaged facilities are reconstructed is a rare opportunity to rebuild or repair to a higher standard of resiliency. In New York, buildings that endured flooded utility rooms moved their boilers and water heaters from basements to higher floors. Hospitals added redundant systems to ensure they could function if power or water was lost. Tunnels were reconstructed to be capable of withstanding the impact of flooding.

Given the free enterprise-first culture of North and South Carolina, any improvement in toxic materials management will need the strong support of the business community. While in normal times this is unlikely, the aftermath of a massive flooding event is not a normal time. You hope that you’ve just experienced a “once in a lifetime event”, but in the back of your mind, you assume, or at least fear, that extreme weather events are here to stay. This provides an opportunity to encourage, if not require, that more secure and technologically advanced toxic material practices be put in place.

Pig waste processing might be a good place to start. Construction of facilities to utilize the waste for fertilizer and fuel should be considered. Dumping the waste into ponds is an environmental accident waiting to happen. The argument against effective materials management is that it adds costs to production and makes the business less competitive. But if the materials are reprocessed for use, and if the production process is designed to reuse most waste materials, then waste is transformed from an economic liability to an economic asset. The goal is to make money from your waste; that is the argument for a circular economy. Think of it as chicken wing logic. In the old days, cooks discarded a chicken’s wings, but then a Buffalo bartender served them up with hot sauce and gave wings away to encourage patrons to buy more beer. The wings went from waste to finger food. But it took imagination and insight to develop that new practice.  Mishandling of toxic materials tends to be built on old habits and resistance to change–especially when the motivation for change is a government regulation. But catastrophe can also stimulate new thinking and motivate change.

When the flood waters recede, North and South Carolina will be inundated with insurance and government dollars. The highest priority will be to recover as quickly as possible and enable people to rebuild their homes, lives and livelihoods. That makes good sense, but speed does not require sloppiness. The mindset in the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy was that reconstruction needed to build on the lessons learned from the hurricane. One of those lessons is that it could happen again. Toxic materials that were released into the environment after this hurricane will be released after the next one too, unless we learn how to do a better job of handling these materials. This is an opportunity to reengineer and reimagine the way toxic materials are managed. Carolina should take advantage of the opportunity presented by this disaster.

Hurricane Florence from the International Space Station. Photo by: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
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