The chemicals anxiety machine

Democrat candidate Roy Cooper

Democrat candidate Roy Cooper

Rank politics and baseless health scares are driving anxiety, North Carolina election campaigns, civil rights claims and plans for class action lawsuits, all of which could bring electricity rate hikes that will cause real job, health and civil rights problems for families – for no health or environmental benefits.

As I noted in an earlier article, North Carolina state toxicologist Ken Rudo has publicly disagreed with the US Environmental Protection Agency and other NC “tox” experts, who say levels of chromium-6 detected in some NC waters are safe. The contaminant comes from coal ash deposits and other sources.

Not surprisingly, Erin Brockovich has sided with Dr. Rudo. She became rich and famous by promoting “toxic chromium” scares, co-authored a recent letter with the radical Environmental Working Group raising Cr-6 alarms, and will speak on election eve at Catawba College in NC to stir things up still further.

The issue is also playing prominently in the NC gubernatorial campaign. Democrat candidate Roy Cooper says well water is unsafe and is hammering the Duke Energy power company for creating the deposits and sitting Governor Pat McCrory (who once worked for Duke) for rescinding a “do not drink” order.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) claims chromium-6 is seeping out of ash deposits, contaminating drinking water supplies and “disproportionately affecting” minority families. Communities near “waste disposal” and “industrial” facilities have “extremely high” rates of cancer, heart and other health issues, a Commission report asserts, lumping those facilities in with coal ash sites.

The contaminants get into well water, drinking water, and even “recreational waters” that are “heavily used for fishing, boating and swimming,” the Commission report states. The problem “extends for miles” around communities near coal ash deposits, which are “disproportionately located in low-income and minority communities,” making this a civil rights issue that government must address.

The USCCR wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NC Department of Environmental Quality to examine the civil rights implications, classify coal ash as a “hazardous waste,” force utility companies to relocate deposits, and compensate people for healthcare expenses and land devaluations.

A persuasive and well-documented dissent by Commissioner Gail Heriot (pages 113-142 of the report) demolishes the USCCR assertions. Her analysis deserves widespread attention both on environmental and civil rights matters, and on how some people deliberately use these issues to generate racial animosity.

No one on the Commission, she notes, has any expertise in waste disposal, toxicology, epidemiology or medicine, and thus had no business issuing pronouncements on coal ash toxicity. There is “strong” evidence that coal ash facilities “are not disproportionately located” near racial minorities. Lumping coal ash together with other facilities that involve dangerous chemicals, and then blaming coal ash, is invalid.

Ms. Heriot is also perturbed that USCCR Chairman Martin Castro suggested that NC communities are bring “victimized by environmental racism.” These kinds of “incendiary allegations” are inappropriate, she says; they “fan the flames of racial resentment” based on insufficient or false information.

Interestingly, tests in 2014 consistently found Cr-6 in city water supplies above 0.07 parts per billion, unnecessarily triggering “do not drink” advisories to some well water users, the Greensboro News & Record reported. However, May 2016 tests could not even detect the chemical, the paper noted.

The 0.07 ppb standard is equivalent to 7 seconds in 3,300 years. The EPA and NCDEQ safety standard for Cr-6 in drinking water is 100 ppb, and a 2012 scientific paper in the Journal of Applied Toxicology concluded that regularly drinking water with 210 ppb poses no health or cancer risks. That safe, non-carcinogenic 210 ppb level is 3,000 times higher than the 0.07 ppb “trigger warning” level.

There is no evidence that Cr-6 levels found in U.S. drinking water cause any of the laundry list of health problems presented by the USCCR. For the EWG to say barely detectable 0.02 ppb levels are dangerous and carcinogenic in water that 218 million Americans drink every day is disingenuous and incendiary. Moreover, coal ash is mostly inert, with most metallic components in tiny amounts and/or bonded tightly in crystalline (glassy) sand particles. Very little leaches out. Moreover, chromium-6 occurs naturally in rocks and soils throughout the USA. It is not solely a byproduct of coal burning or industrial processes.

Saying grave health concerns arise from such minimal Cr-6 levels as 0.02 or 0.07 ppb in drinking water is groundless; saying health impacts arise from its its presence in recreational waters is absurd. Indeed, Ohio’s EPA director dismisses the EWG claims as “scare tactics” to raise money.

All this suggests that the USCCR and EWG claims are just part of the campaign to eliminate coal-fired power plants and the reliable, affordable electricity they generate. The claims could also be setting the stage for more collusive sue-and-settle lawsuits between the USEPA and environmentalist groups – with those who will be most affected having no opportunity to testify and no voice in the outcome.

Forcing utility companies to spend billions relocating huge ash deposits to “lined, watertight landfills” (in someone else’s backyard) will bring no health or environmental benefits. But it will bankrupt companies, send electricity prices soaring, reverberate through our economy, and raise true civil rights issues. As Ms. Heriot notes, “driving up the cost of power has its own disparate impact” on minority families.

Black and Hispanic families spend a 10-50% greater share of their income than white families on heating, air conditioning, lights and other electrical costs, National Black Chamber of Commerce president Harry Alford points out. They are also more likely to suffer still lower living standards and even lose their jobs, as employers respond to higher electricity prices by laying more people off.

If rates nearly double from current costs in coal-reliant states like North Carolina and Virginia (9 cents per kilowatt-hour) to those in anti-coal New York (16 cents) or Connecticut (17 cents), poor families will have to pay $500-1,000 more annually for electricity. Hospitals, school districts, factories and businesses will have to spend additional thousands, tens of thousands or millions. Where will that cash come from?

Will businesses have to lay off dozens or hundreds of employees, or close their doors? If they pass costs on to customers, where will families find that extra cash? If hospitals cut services or raise fees, how will that affect patient costs and care? Might the EWG and USCCR provide financial assistance? Fat chance.

By necessity, hospitals are energy intensive. The average U.S. hospital uses 31 kilowatt-hours of electricity per square foot per year. For facilities like the 665,000-square-foot Inova Fairfax Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Northern Virginia, that translates into $1,855,000 per year at 9 cents/kWh, but $3,505,000 at 17 cents. That’s a $1.6-million difference.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, NC is 530,600 square feet. That’s $1,480,000/year at 9 cents/kWh or $2,796,000/year at 17 cents: a $1.5-million gap.

Ohio State University’s James Cancer Center and Solove Research Institute in Columbus is1.1 million square feet. That’s $3,069,000/year at 9¢/kWh versus $5,797,000 at 17 cents: a $2.7 million shortfall!

Those cost increases would result in lost jobs and reduced patient care. Now try to imagine the impacts on schools, factories, churches, grocery stores, malls and thousands of other major electricity users – to address health problems that exist only in the fertile minds of a few activists and regulators.

The war on coal, petroleum, nuclear and hydroelectric power is an eco-imperialist war on reliable, affordable electricity – and on poor and minority families. Policies that drive energy prices up drive people out of jobs, drive companies out of business, drive families into green energy poverty.

An yet these fundamental “civil rights” and “environmental justice” issues are rarely mentioned by the USCCR, EWG, EPA, NAACP, Democratic Party or self-appointed “civil rights leaders.” Too many of them also oppose charter schools for minority kids who are getting shortchanged by public schools, and regulatory reforms to spur job creation in minority communities. Will common sense ever prevail?


Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org), and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black death and other books on the environment.

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