Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

Amid flooding and rising sea levels, residents of one barrier island wonder if it’s time to retreat

The Washington Post, by  Frances Stead Sellers,  Nov. 9, 2019 PST

OCRACOKE, N.C. — On any normal late-fall day, the ferries that ply the 30 miles between Swan Quarter and this barrier island might carry vacationing retirees, sports fishermen and residents enjoying mainland getaways after the busy summer tourist season.

But two months ago, Hurricane Dorian washed away all signs of normalcy here. After buzz-cutting the Bahamas, the giant storm rolled overhead, raising a seven-foot wall of water in its wake that sloshed back through the harbor, invading century-old homes that have never before taken in water and sending islanders such as post office head Celeste Brooks and her two grandchildren scrambling into their attics.

Ocracoke has been closed to visitors ever since. Island-bound ferries carry yawning container trucks to haul back the sodden detritus of destroyed homes. And O’cockers — proud descendants of the pilots and pirates who navigated these treacherous shores — are faced with a reckoning: whether this sliver of sand, crouched three feet above sea level between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, can survive the threats of extreme weather and rising sea levels. And if it can’t, why rebuild?

“That’s the unspoken question. That’s what nobody wants to say,” said Erin Baker, the only doctor to serve this community of 1,000. “It’s a question of how do we continue to have life here.”

Scientists have long warned that Ocracoke’s days are numbered, that this treasured island is a bellwether for vast stretches of the U.S. coast.

“Virtually everyone from Virginia Beach south to the U.S./Mexico border is going to be in the same situation in the next 50 years,” said Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine affairs at Duke University. “And it’s only going to get worse after that.”

If Ocracoke’s ultimate prognosis is grim, Tom Pahl, the township’s county commissioner, remains committed to its recovery.

“Is this really sustainable? The answer is pretty clearly no,” he said. “But what’s the timeline? No one has been able to say, ‘You’ve got 15 years, 40 years, 100 years.’ The clear-eyed vision is resiliency then retreat.”

[As North Carolina focuses on getting ahead of hurricanes, some residents are hesitant to move]

The disaster has in some ways shortened people’s outlook.

“I don’t think we’re thinking that far ahead right now,” said Monroe Gaskill, 64, echoing in the distinctive island brogue the immediate concerns of many “ol’ toimers”: whether the island will be open in time for duck-hunting season later this month; where students will study next semester when they have to relinquish their temporary classrooms in the old Coast Guard Station; and what will become of all the displaced residents, who are holed up in rental units, once the tourists return next Easter.

Even as some houses are being bulldozed, neighbors are working together to raise others.

“Now I know there is no such thing as high enough,” said Janet Spencer behind the counter of the hardware store, which reopened without power right after the storm. She and her husband jacked up their home 18 years ago — just one cinder block too few to keep out Dorian. Still, she said, long-term residents won’t leave.

“It’s the only thing we know,” she said.

The home of Edward and Stella O’Neal is torn down due to damage caused by flooding during Hurricane Dorian in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
The home of Edward and Stella O’Neal is torn down due to damage caused by flooding during Hurricane Dorian in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Monroe Gaskill, a commercial fisherman and licensed hunter guide, said he thinks people on the island are more focused on their immediate concerns right now. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Monroe Gaskill, a commercial fisherman and licensed hunter guide, said he thinks people on the island are more focused on their immediate concerns right now. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

There are hazards everywhere, said Amy Howard, 47, a local historian and craft store manager, and hurricanes have shaped the culture of this storied village. She showed off the floorboards her great-grandfather cut out in 1933 to relieve pressure from mounting water and prevent the house from floating off its foundations. The building was raised in 1944 after a storm, and her father plans to elevate it further.

Alton Ballance, a descendant, like Gaskill and Howard, of the island’s earliest white settlers, has heard the call to retreat. “Time to get off that island!” one friend, an ocean scientist, has told him. “There may come a day when it’s not feasible to continue,” Ballance concedes, but for now he is methodically stripping out the old family home and installing new electrical outlets waist-high.

“It’s easy for people in government and sometimes in the media to target a small place like this,” Ballance said, rocking back and forth on a porch swing outside the room where his mother was born.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided support for rebuilding roads and other infrastructure. But a recent decision to deny residents individual assistance, which would have helped with temporary housing, has provoked ire when so many coastal communities received funds after hurricanes such as Sandy in 2012.

FEMA said it provides the funding only when state and local resources are overwhelmed.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has signaled his commitment to rebuilding. But the islanders’ sense of injustice reflects a broad dilemma, according to Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University — a lack of clarity about which parts of the nation’s threatened shoreline can and should be protected.

“There is no clear national plan,” said Young, so FEMA’s decision “comes across as arbitrary.”

While Young does not advocate mass migration, wetter storms are raising questions about using taxpayer money to rebuild coastal communities.

“At some point, there is going to be a breaking point,” he said, “when the public sector is either not going to want or to be able to afford to accept the risk.”

Meanwhile, the future of the Outer Banks is made more precarious by development, said Stanley Riggs, who devoted his career at East Carolina University to studying the state’s 10,000-mile coastline.

“We’re loving these islands to death,” Riggs said, constructing roads and bridges to bring in tourists and blocking the natural flow of tides and storms that over millennia have shaped the 175-mile string of shifting sand banks.

What remains of Highway 12 is piled up to be hauled away after flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
What remains of Highway 12 is piled up to be hauled away after flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

Riggs served on a state advisory panel that in 2010 predicted more than three feet of sea-level rise by 2100, prompting a backlash from lawmakers skeptical of climate change and developers.  A compromise bill, based on a shorter timeline, passed in 2012, even as the jeopardy has become clearer here: The coastline of Cape Hatteras, north of Ocracoke, is eroding rapidly, retreating by more than a mile since Hurricane Isabel in 2003; to the south, once-vibrant Portsmouth is a ghost town.

Sitting outside the makeshift classrooms, middle school science teacher Patricia Piland described how climate science has become real for her eighth-graders. Their curriculum this semester focuses on the hydrosphere, but she has moderated her message for students shell shocked by their narrow escape.

“One girl said, ‘So, we’re screwed.’ ” Piland recalled. “I told them I believe we can plan for sea-level rise.” Doing so, she said, will require working with nature rather than responding to the demands of developers.

Enrollment at the school has dropped from 174 to 157 since the storm, and Brooks, the post office head, is seeing the community fray slightly as families file change-of-address forms. “There will be more,” she predicted, weeping as she recalled the trauma of being trapped by rising water.

Some people who lost their jobs took off quickly. Others are still deciding. Tom Parker, 66, who moved here 20 years ago, wiped away tears as he sat under the live oak tree where he has made a steady income charging tourists $1 to have their photo taken among its gnarled branches.

“I’m tired of having this constant risk of having it all destroyed,” he said.

But for many people who come here to wait tables or clean motel rooms, Ocracoke remains a place of opportunity, not retreat. The storm was a setback for Idalid Maldonado, a seasonal worker already facing problems this year with her visa, but she hopes it’s only a temporary one.

She set down the wheelbarrow she has been using to lug the salt-stained contents out of guest rooms to ponder whether she will be back next summer.

“I don’t know,” Maldonado said. “I don’t know.”

About one-third of Ocracoke’s population is Latino, many of whom came like Maldonado to serve summer visitors and then were seduced by the gentle year-round rhythm of island life where children can roam free.

“We talked about moving, but here, it’s a special place,” said Gloria Benitez-Perez, whose husband is in the construction business and built their house on stilts. “We are going to be fine.”

A pile of debris grows in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
A pile of debris grows in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Local artists painted and displayed signs to boost morale in Ocracoke after Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Local artists painted and displayed signs to boost morale in Ocracoke after Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

But, like the shipwrecks that surface after storms, existing problems gained prominence following Dorian’s blow. Stanley “Chip” Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge, named after the fearsome buccaneer who was beheaded here, said there has been no full accounting of Dorian’s damage and of the impact on people living in sheds and trailers who are “the backbone of our service workforce.”

He advocates more building, not less, to support the “shadow economy” on which Ocracoke — and impoverished Hyde County — depend.

“What the island needs is affordable housing,” Stevens said.

Aid workers, meanwhile, comment on the extraordinary challenges of offshore construction. Every box of nails, each bottle of bleach and all the two-by-fours have to be driven out through low-lying country before being loaded for the almost three-hour ride across the Sound. Contractors face a round-trip commute of six hours or more, or they have to find a place to stay.

There is another, shorter, route out of Ocracoke.

North of the village, past the discarded cars and the corroded appliances, Highway 12 leads through the National Park’s windswept dunes to an isolated ferry terminal.

Dorian chewed up the tarmac. Only four-wheel drives are allowed to make the trip, tucking in behind a tow truck that leads over rutted, chassis-scraping sand to the waiting Hatteras ferry.

Once the road is passable — perhaps by late November — it will provide a lifeline. But it won’t restore normalcy or eliminate the sense that this little paradise is in limbo.

“The hard part hasn’t started yet,” said Baker, the island doctor, who is monitoring patients’ stress at the metal mobile clinic shipped in to replace her flooded facility. The hurricane that pummeled the Bahamas had reduced to a Category 1 by the time it swamped Ocracoke, she said.

“There’s a whole new level of fear for those who stay.”

Erin Baker, the only doctor in the community of 1,000, in front of her temporary clinic. Her facility was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Erin Baker, the only doctor in the community of 1,000, in front of her temporary clinic. Her facility was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
Share...

    How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong

    Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.
    The New York Times, Opinion, by Eugene Linden, Nov. 8, 2019
    Transit workers pumped water out of the South Ferry subway station in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
    Transit workers pumped water out of the South Ferry subway station in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

    For decades, most scientists saw climate change as a distant prospect. We now know that thinking was wrong. This summer, for instance, a heat wave in Europe penetrated the Arctic, pushing temperatures into the 80s across much of the Far North and, according to the Belgian climate scientist Xavier Fettweis, melting some 40 billion tons of Greenland’s ice sheet.

    Had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels, at an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic and produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin, the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist. But many worst-case scenarios from that time are now realities.

    Science is a process of discovery. It can move slowly as the pieces of a puzzle fall together and scientists refine their investigative tools. But in the case of climate, this deliberation has been accompanied by inertia born of bureaucratic caution and politics. A recent essay in Scientific American argued that scientists “tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold” and said one of the reasons was “the perceived need for consensus.” This has had severe consequences, diluting what should have been a sense of urgency and vastly understating the looming costs of adaptation and dislocation as the planet continues to warm.

    In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group of thousands of scientists representing 195 countries, said in its first report that climate change would arrive at a stately pace, that the methane-laden Arctic permafrost was not in danger of thawing, and that the Antarctic ice sheets were stable.

    Relying on the climate change panel’s assessment, economists estimated that the economic hit would be small, providing further ammunition against an aggressive approach to reducing emissions and to building resilience to climate change.

    As we now know, all of those predictions turned out to be completely wrong. Which makes you wonder whether the projected risks of further warming, dire as they are, might still be understated. How bad will things get?

    So far, the costs of underestimation have been enormous. New York City’s subway system did not flood in its first 108 years, but Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 storm surge caused nearly $5 billion in water damage, much of which is still not repaired. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey gave Houston and the surrounding region a $125 billion lesson about the costs of misjudging the potential for floods.

    Flooded roads in Beaumont, Tex., after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
    Flooded roads in Beaumont, Tex., after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

    The climate change panel seems finally to have caught up with the gravity of the climate crisis. Last year, the organization detailed the extraordinary difficulty of limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), over the next 80 years, and the grim consequences that will result even if that goal is met.

    More likely, a separate United Nations report concluded, we are headed for warming of at least 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That will come with almost unimaginable damage to economies and ecosystems. Unfortunately, this dose of reality arrives more than 30 years after human-caused climate change became a mainstream issue.

    The word “upended” does not do justice to the revolution in climate science wrought by the discovery of sudden climate change. The realization that the global climate can swing between warm and cold periods in a matter of decades or even less came as a profound shock to scientists who thought those shifts took hundreds if not thousands of years.

    Scientists knew major volcanic eruptions or asteroid strikes could affect climate rapidly, but such occurrences were uncommon and unpredictable. Absent such rare events, changes in climate looked steady and smooth, a consequence of slow-moving geophysical factors like the earth’s orbital cycle in combination with the tilt of the planet’s axis, or shifts in the continental plates.

    Then, in the 1960s, a few scientists began to focus on an unusual event that took place after the last ice age. Scattered evidence suggested that the post-ice age warming was interrupted by a sudden cooling that began around 12,000 years ago and ended abruptly 1,300 years later. The era was named the Younger Dryas for a plant that proliferated during that cold period.

    At first, some scientists questioned the rapidity and global reach of the cooling. A report from the National Academies of Science in 1975 acknowledged the Younger Dryas but concluded that it would take centuries for the climate to change in a meaningful way. But not everyone agreed. The climate scientist Wallace Broecker at Columbia had offered a theory that changes in ocean circulation could bring about sudden climate shifts like the Younger Dryas.

    And it was Dr. Broecker who, in 1975, the same year as that National Academies report playing down the Younger Dryas, published a paper, titled “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” in which he predicted that emissions of carbon dioxide would raise global temperatures significantly in the 21st century. This is now seen as prophetic, but at the time, Dr. Broecker was an outlier.

    Then, in the early 1990s, scientists completed more precise studies of ice cores extracted from the Greenland ice sheet. Dust and oxygen isotopes encased in the cores provided a detailed climate record going back eons. It revealed that there had been 25 rapid climate change events like the Younger Dryas in the last glacial period.

    The evidence in those ice cores would prove pivotal in turning the conventional wisdom. As the science historian Spencer Weart put it: “How abrupt was the discovery of abrupt climate change? Many climate experts would put their finger on one moment: the day they read the 1993 report of the analysis of Greenland ice cores. Before that, almost nobody confidently believed that the climate could change massively within a decade or two; after the report, almost nobody felt sure that it could not.”

    In 2002, the National Academies acknowledged the reality of rapid climate change in a report, “Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises,” which described the new consensus as a “paradigm shift.” This was a reversal of its 1975 report.

    “Large, abrupt climate changes have affected hemispheric to global regions repeatedly, as shown by numerous paleoclimate records,” the report said, and added that “changes of up to 16 degrees Celsius and a factor of 2 in precipitation have occurred in some places in periods as short as decades to years.”

    The National Academies report added that the implications of such potential rapid changes had not yet been considered by policymakers and economists. And even today, 17 years later, a substantial portion of the American public remains unaware or unconvinced it is happening.

    Melt water poured into a fjord in western Greenland this summer when a heat wave that smashed records in Europe moved over the island.
    Melt water poured into a fjord in western Greenland this summer when a heat wave that smashed records in Europe moved over the island. Credit…Caspar Haarl’v/Associated Press

    Were the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica to melt, sea levels would rise by an estimated 225 feet worldwide. Few expect that to happen anytime soon. But those ice sheets now look a lot more fragile than they did to the climate change panel in 1995, when it said that little change was expected over the next hundred years.

    In the years since, data has shown that both Greenland and Antarctica have been shedding ice far more rapidly than anticipated. Ice shelves, which are floating extensions of land ice, hold back glaciers from sliding into the sea and eventually melting. In the early 2000s, ice shelves began disintegrating in several parts of Antarctica, and scientists realized that process could greatly accelerate the demise of the vastly larger ice sheets themselves. And some major glaciers are dumping ice directly into the ocean.

    By 2014, a number of scientists had concluded that an irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet had already begun, and computer modeling in 2016 indicated that its disintegration in concert with other melting could raise sea levels up to six feet by 2100, about twice the increase described as a possible worst-case scenario just three years earlier. At that pace, some of the world’s great coastal cities, including New York, London and Hong Kong, would become inundated.

    Then this year, a review of 40 years of satellite images suggested that the East Antarctic ice sheet, which was thought to be relatively stable, may also be shedding vast amounts of ice.

    Rifts in the Amery ice shelf in Eastern Antarctica. In September, a section of the shelf broke away, forming a 600-square-mile iceberg.
    Rifts in the Amery ice shelf in Eastern Antarctica. In September, a section of the shelf broke away, forming a 600-square-mile iceberg. Credit…Richard Coleman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    As the seas rise, they are also warming at a pace unanticipated as recently as five years ago. This is very bad news. For one thing, a warmer ocean means more powerful storms, and die-offs of marine life, but it also suggests that the planet is more sensitive to increased carbon dioxide emissions than previously thought.

    The melting of permafrost has also defied expectations. This is ground that has remained frozen for at least two consecutive years and covers around a quarter of the exposed land mass of the Northern Hemisphere. As recently as 1995, it was thought to be stable. But by 2005, the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimated that up to 90 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s topmost layer of permafrost could thaw by 2100, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

    For all of the missed predictions, changes in the weather are confirming earlier expectations that a warming globe would be accompanied by an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather. And there are new findings unforeseen by early studies, such as the extremely rapid intensification of storms, as on Sept. 1, when Hurricane Dorian’s sustained winds intensified from 150 to 185 miles per hour in just nine hours, and last year when Hurricane Michael grew from tropical depression to major hurricane in just two days.

    If the Trump administration has its way, even the revised worst-case scenarios may turn out to be too rosy. In late August, the administration announced a plan to roll back regulations intended to limit methane emissions resulting from oil and gas exploration, despite opposition from some of the largest companies subject to those regulations. More recently, its actions approached the surreal as the Justice Department opened an antitrust investigation into those auto companies that have agreed in principle to abide by higher gas mileage standards required by California. The administration also formally revoked a waiver allowing California to set stricter limits on tailpipe emissions than the federal government.

    Even if scientists end up having lowballed their latest assessments of the consequences of the greenhouse gases we continue to emit into the atmosphere, their predictions are dire enough. But the Trump administration has made its posture toward climate change abundantly clear: Bring it on!

    It’s already here. And it is going to get worse. A lot worse.

    The flooded roadway into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy.
    The flooded roadway into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Credit…Andrew Burton/Getty Images

     

    Share...

      EPA rule change: power plants can dump fine powder, sludge and contaminated water

      EPA to scale back federal rules restricting waste from coal-fired power plants

      Agency chief Andrew Wheeler argues that Obama-era rules ‘placed heavy burdens on electricity producers.’ Critics call the changes unwarranted and potentially dangerous.
      The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.  (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
      The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

      The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday plans to relax rules that govern how power plants store waste from burning coal and release water containing toxic metals into nearby waterways, according to agency officials.

      The proposals, which scale back two rules adopted in 2015, affect the disposal of fine powder and sludge known as coal ash, as well as contaminated water that power plants produce while burning coal. Both forms of waste can contain mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals that pose risks to human health and the environment.

      The new rules would allow extensions that could keep unlined coal ash waste ponds open for as long as eight additional years. The biggest benefits from the rule governing contaminated wastewater would come from the voluntary use of new filtration technology.

      Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings and to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent requirements enacted under the Obama administration. They also reflect President Trump’s broader goal of bolstering America’s coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity for consumers.

      Under the Obama-era rule, coal ash ponds leaking contaminants into groundwater that exceeded federal protection standards had to close by April 2019. The Trump administration extended that deadline to October 2020 in a rule it finalized last year.

      In August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit instructed the EPA to require that companies overhaul ponds, including those lined with clay and compacted soil, even if there was no evidence that sludge was leaking into groundwater.

      In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”

      “These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”

      Under the new proposal, companies will have to stop placing coal ash into unlined storage ponds near waterways by Aug. 31, 2020, and either retrofit these sites to make them more secure or begin to close them. Unlike the Obama-era rules, the EPA will allow greater leeway and more time for operators to request extensions ranging from 90 days to three years, until Oct. 15, 2023, if they can convince regulators that they need more time to properly dispose of the waste.

      Moreover, if a company can demonstrate it is shutting down a coal boiler, it can petition to keep its storage ponds open for as long as eight years, depending on their size. Slurry ponds smaller than 40 acres could get approval to stay in place until Oct. 15, 2023, officials said, while larger ones could remain open until Oct. 15, 2028.

      In a phone interview Sunday, American Public Power Association general counsel Delia Patterson said the proposed rules reflect the fact that it can take time to design, permit and construct new facilities that can pass muster.

      “I think the EPA is actually acknowledging the reality of the situation. It’s just really not in anyone’s interest to rush this,” said Patterson, whose group represents publicly owned utilities that provide 15 percent of the nation’s electricity.

      Environmentalists have sharply criticized the proposals, arguing that these containment sites pose serious risks to the public at a time when more frequent and intense flooding, fueled in part by climate change, could destabilize them and contaminate drinking water supplies that serve millions of people. The rules will be subject to public comment for 60 days.

      During the past decade, Tennessee and North Carolina have experienced major coal ash spills that have destroyed homes and contaminated rivers, resulting in sickened cleanup workers and extensive lawsuits.

      The question of how to handle coal waste, which is stored in roughly 450 sites across the country, has vexed regulators for decades. The Obama administration negotiated for years with environmental groups, electric utilities and other affected industries about how to address the waste, which can poison wildlife and poses health risks to people living near storage sites.

      Lisa Evans, an attorney specializing in hazardous waste litigation for the environmental group Earthjustice, said allowing the electric industry to extend the life of coal ash pits represents a particular threat to low-income and minority Americans, who often live near such installations.

      “Allowing plants to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking coal ash ponds for another 10 years will cause irreversible damage to drinking water sources, human health and the nation’s waters,” Evans said in an email. It was not surprising, she added, that the coal industry had lobbied against closing these storage sites. “Operating ponds is cheap. Closing them costs the utilities money,” she said.

      It is also likely to add to consumers’ costs. Last year, for example, a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission estimated it could cost ratepayers as much as $3.30 a month over 20 years — between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion — to clean up Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills in the state.

      The EPA’s proposals will retain several of the monitoring and public disclosure standards put in place in 2015, officials said, requiring companies to monitor nearby groundwater, publicly report the data and address any leaks that pollute area waterways. The “vast majority” of slurry ponds “are on the road to closure” under the new rule, an EPA official said.

      Using monitoring data disclosed for the first time under the 2015 rule, a report published jointly earlier this year by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found 91 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater.

      The vast majority of ponds and landfills holding coal waste at hundreds of power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater at facilities from Texas to Pennsylvania to Maryland, according to that analysis. The report acknowledged, however, that the groundwater data alone does not prove drinking-water supplies near the coal waste facilities have been contaminated. Power companies are not routinely required to test nearby drinking water wells. “So the scope of the threat is largely undefined,” the report stated.

      The EPA on Monday will also revise requirements for how power plants discharge wastewater, which contains some of the same kind of contaminants. Under the Obama administration, EPA staff had concluded it was feasible to prohibit any releases of such toxic materials by having the units continually recycle their water. The agency has now concluded this is much more costly than originally anticipated, and technological advances have made it cheaper to filter and capture the waste through a membrane system, officials said.

      Under the new rule, plants would be allowed to discharge 10 percent of their water each day, on a 30-day rolling average. The administration projects the regulation would prevent 105 million pounds of pollutants from being released compared with the old standards because 18 affected plants would voluntarily adopt a more advanced filtration system. The administration also estimated it would save the industry $175 million each year in compliance costs and yield an additional $15 million to $69 million in annual public health and environmental benefits.

      However, even if the 18 plants voluntarily adopted more advanced filtration techniques, they represent a minority of the nation’s total plants.

      Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, former director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water, said the proposed rule “relaxes the 2015 treatment requirements allowing increased selenium discharges and [the] release of contaminated water from coal ash handling. Even worse, it exempts a large number of plants from these relaxed requirements, allowing them to discharge more pollutants and continue disposing of ash in leaking ponds.”

      Patterson said although it may be “just hard to understand” why companies need more time and flexibility, plant operators have no interest in contaminating nearby waterways. “They live in and around these communities,” she said.

      Evans said environmentalists are likely to challenge the new rule on coal ash storage, and the federal government could again reverse course if a Democrat wins the presidency next year. She noted that, because 95 percent of coal ash ponds remain unlined, two-thirds lie within five feet of groundwater and 92 percent leak more than federal health standards allow, they could pose a risk to the public even as litigation winds its way through the federal courts.

      “We have to hope that no wells are poisoned and no toxic waste is spilled in the interim,” she said. “Crossing your fingers is not a legal or sane way to regulate toxic waste.”

      Share...

        Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think

        Economists greatly underestimate the price tag on harsher weather and higher seas. Why is that?

        The New York Times OPINION, by Naomi Oreskes and 
        Credit…Mike McQuade

        For some time now it has been clear that the effects of climate change are appearing faster than scientists anticipated. Now it turns out that there is another form of underestimation as bad or worse than the scientific one: the underestimating by economists of the costs.

        The result of this failure by economists is that world leaders understand neither the magnitude of the risks to lives and livelihoods, nor the urgency of action. How and why this has occurred is explained in a recent report by scientists and economists at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

        One reason is obvious: Since climate scientists have been underestimating the rate of climate change and the severity of its effects, then economists will necessarily underestimate their costs.

        But it’s worse than that. A set of assumptions and practices in economics has led economists both to underestimate the economic impact of many climate risks and to miss some of them entirely. That is a problem because, as the report notes, these “missing risks” could have “drastic and potentially catastrophic impacts on citizens, communities and companies.”

        One problem involves the nature of risk in a climate-altered world. Right now, carbon dioxide is at its highest concentration in the atmosphere in three million years (and still climbing). The last time levels were this high, the world was about five degrees Fahrenheit warmer and sea level 32 to 65 feet higher. Humans have no experience weathering sustained conditions of this type.

        Typically, our estimates of the value or cost of something, whether it is a pair of shoes, a loaf of bread or the impact of a hurricane, are based on experience. Statisticians call this “stationarity.” But when conditions change so much that experience is no longer a reliable guide to the future — when stationarity no longer applies — then estimates become more and more uncertain.

        Hydrologists have recognized for some time that climate change has undermined stationarity in water management — indeed, they have declared that stationarity is dead. But economists have by and large not recognized that this applies to climate effects across the board. They approach climate damages as minor perturbations around an underlying path of economic growth, and take little account of the fundamental destruction that we might be facing because it is so outside humanity’s experience.

        A second difficulty involves parameters that scientists do not feel they can adequately quantify, like the value of biodiversity or the costs of ocean acidification. Research shows that when scientists lack good data for a variable, even if they know it to be salient, they are loath to assign a value out of a fear that they would be “making it up.”

        Therefore, in many cases, they simply omit it from the model, assessment or discussion. In economic assessments of climate change, some of the largest factors, like thresholds in the climate system, when a tiny change could tip the system catastrophically, and possible limits to the human capacity to adapt, are omitted for this reason. In effect, economists have assigned them a value of zero, when the risks are decidedly not. One example from the report: The melting of Himalayan glaciers and snow will both flood and profoundly affect the water supply of communities in which hundreds of millions of people live, yet this is absent from most economic assessments.

        A third and terrifying problem involves cascading effects. One reason the harms of climate change are hard to fathom is that they will not occur in isolation, but will reinforce one another in damaging ways. In some cases, they may produce a sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage.

        For example, a sudden rapid loss of Greenland or West Antarctic land ice could lead to much higher sea levels and storm surges, which would contaminate water supplies, destroy coastal cities, force out their residents, and cause turmoil and conflict.

        Another example: increased heat decreases food production, which leads to widespread malnutrition, which diminishes the capacity of people to withstand heat and disease and makes it effectively impossible for them to adapt to climate change. Sustained extreme heat may also decrease industrial productivity, bringing about economic depressions.

        In a worst-case scenario, climate impacts could set off a feedback loop in which climate change leads to economic losses, which lead to social and political disruption, which undermines both democracy and our capacity to prevent further climate damage. These sorts of cascading effects are rarely captured in economic models of climate impacts. And this set of known omissions does not, of course, include additional risks that we may have failed to have identified.

        The urgency and potential irreversibility of climate effects mean we cannot wait for the results of research to deepen our understanding and reduce the uncertainty about these risks. This is particularly so because the study suggests that if we are missing something in our assessments, it is likely something that makes the problem worse.

        This is yet another reason it’s urgent to pursue a new, greener economic path for growth and development. If we do that, a happy ending is still possible. But if we wait to be more certain, the only certainty is that we will regret it.


        Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “Why Trust Science?” Nicholas Stern is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and the author of “Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change.”
        Share...

          For safe and healthy communities…