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A New Economy Will Help Save Rivers and Fisheries

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderGlobalization and cheater economics have been destroying the world’s great rivers and their fisheries. Most people know about the devastation of rivers from water pollution, but not as many are aware of the significant impacts of big dams, river engineering, and real estate development in and on top of rivers. These activities can seriously damage fisheries and impair the natural functions of riverine ecosystems. A true-cost, steady state economy would, for the most part, avoid the continuing tragic dismantlement of rivers and fisheries.

The following three activities are causing major harm to rivers and fisheries, but would not occur in a true-cost, steady state economy.

Coal Ash Cesspools

The mining and burning of coal have come under enormous scrutiny because of the air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions they cause. There is another major but relatively unknown water pollution threat from coal burning, in addition to the smoke plume at the power plant–coal fly ash pits. After coal is burned at a power plant to generate electricity, the ash residue (which can contain serious toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) is dumped into unlined ponds or pits near the power plant. These toxic cesspools, as they should be called, cause contamination of surface water, well water, and adjacent lands.

In February of 2014, one of Duke Energy’s dozens of coal ash cesspools malfunctioned, sending toxic sludge 70 miles down the Dan River in North Carolina and into Virginia. Six years earlier (December, 2008) a coal ash cesspool operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke, sending even greater quantities of toxic water and sludge into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Independent testing of coal ash cesspools reveals a Pandora’s Box of toxins, findings that generally contradict assertions by utilities that things are okay. This growing issue amounts to a deadly in-your-face utility circus, flouting the law and flaunting the political power of utilities over state legislatures.

Utilities are doing what would never be allowed in a true-cost economy: they are externalizing the costs of dealing with fly ash from burning coal. Were they to include the health and pollution damages, the costs of coal would skyrocket and its use would be rapidly phased out.

Giant Dams

The economic evidence over the last 70 years against large dams has been assembled by economists at Oxford University (UK). They found, on average, large dam projects in developing countries exceed their construction cost budget by 90%, and often take over 10 years to complete.

Tonle Sap Lake Fish - Shankar S

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most fertile inland fisheries in the world, are facing threats from dams in the nearby Mekong River. Photo Credit: Shankar S

In addition, most mega-hydrodams omit genuine cost-accounting for their sometimes enormous adverse environmental and social impacts. For example, the public tends to think of hydroelectric power as a clean source of energy, not realizing that dams may be responsible for over 20% of the human-caused methane emissions. (Methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) In Asia, the Mekong River contains the world’s largest inland fishery and provides livelihood for an estimated 60 million people. Large dams are planned across the mainstem of the river that would destroy the fish migrations of more than 200 species. One proponent of these dams said, “don’t worry, the people can just buy their fish from a fish farm once the river fish disappear.”

Again, a true-cost economy does not condone the blatant failure to include all the costs. See my February 2015 blog “Crossroads on Global Infrastructure” for more details on large infrastructure projects.

River Engineering and Response to Weather Disasters

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey received about $60 billion in relief and assistance. Instead of avoiding more development in top hazard zones, a burst of building permit applications has been made for more activities in and on top of the Hudson River, all in a number one hazard zone. A lot of this real estate development on piers would harm crucial habitat for over 100 fish, plant, and animal species. The proposals include such reckless propositions as an amphitheater and trees on an artificial “island” in the river. This is not free-enterprise development, but subsidized activity that eventually will necessitate a taxpayer “emergency relief bill” following the next hurricane or superstorm. We will never reach a sustainable economy if we have to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars globally, bailing out new real estate development where it never should have been.

Real estate developments in and on top of rivers, armor-plating shorelines to enable more construction right on the coast, proliferating coal ash cesspools, and building mega-dams all have something in common. They can damage fishery habitats, disrupt fish migrations, and impair the healthy functioning of rivers in the US and worldwide. A true-cost economy recognizes that healthy rivers and flourishing fisheries are vital economic assets for cities and towns, and has principles that prevent their evisceration. The current globalized economy does not.

An Economic Game Plan to Prevent Water Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEven though the Clean Water Act is more than 40 years old, its goals have not been met, and America is still beset with chronic water ailments and acute pollution incidents. Already this year major toxic spills from coal operations in West Virginia and North Carolina have provided grounds for demanding comprehensive changes to a broken system of pollution control.

On January 9, 2014, people in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, began vomiting while others complained of a strange pervasive licorice odor. The problem was traced to chemicals from a malfunctioning chemical/coal facility just upstream from the city’s water supply intake. A state of emergency was declared to provide after-the-fact protection to the 300,000 people who get their drinking water from this system. Both the water supply company and the chemical company allowed the emergency to unfold despite repeated warnings over the years about unsafe structures and operations.

On February 5, 2014, a spill from a coal ash impoundment unleashed 78 million pounds of arsenic-laden sludge into the Dan River, the source of drinking water for cities and towns in Virginia and North Carolina. Duke Energy, a giant utility, operates fourteen coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, and it dumps the toxic combustion byproduct, coal ash, into unlined ponds. The result: groundwater contamination and toxic spills into drinking water supplies. The Duke Energy spill comes with a sad, but familiar footnote. Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, used to work for Duke Energy and has been on a crusade to weaken pollution controls ever since he took office.

Ongoing experience with such grotesque toxic spills, and even growing awareness of global water shortages have failed to generate sufficient responses. Today’s economic framework blocks significant progress on such crucial problems because it props up extractive and highly polluting industries.

Governments are stuck in a business-as-usual, growth-at-all-costs mindset, and they face constant pressure to deregulate industries. Since industry is fixated on profits and growth, it attempts to pay as few costs as possible; cost externalization is a built-in feature of the economic system. But someone always pays — just look at the people downstream or the species and ecosystems where spills occur.

The key to preventing and cleaning up water pollution is to shift the economy from the pursuit of unending growth to the pursuit of stability. Why would water pollution decline in a steady-state economy? Here are three reasons.

Coal ash in the Dan River

Coal ash in the Dan River from the Duke Energy spill in North Carolina (photo credit: Dan River Basin Association).

(1) Changing the macroeconomic goal away from growth and toward maintenance of life-support systems would change the way businesses and other institutions behave. The goal of a true-cost economy is sustainable and equitable well-being, rather than continuous growth. Actors in such an economy would care more about the medium and long-term future than quarterly returns.  For example, in a true-cost economy, chemical companies would engage in green chemistry, and utilities would produce renewable energy. The costs of using fossil fuels and other toxic substances would simply be too high to pay. Regarding the outrageous scenario of having decaying storage tanks full of dangerous chemicals directly upstream from the water supply intake for a state capital: it would never happen in a true-cost economy.

(2) Companies would be required to have eco-auditors just as they are now required to have financial auditors. Such eco-auditors would assess whether a company was externalizing costs and whether the company’s production was harming life-support systems. Eco-auditors could also show businesses how to avoid pollution. Companies would disclose their ecological impacts in an annual report just as they do with financial audits.

(3) There would be consequences for repeat polluters. For example, in the decade prior to its gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP had been responsible for a refinery fire in Texas with significant loss of life and two oil spills in the Arctic Ocean from the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Why not three strikes and you’re out? Why not deny BP the right to do business in the U.S.? Instead, the Obama administration has done the opposite by giving BP the go-ahead to drill again in the Gulf of Mexico!

Another example: given the repeated incidents of pollution oozing from Duke Energy’s numerous coal ash ponds, despite years of complaints and penalties, shouldn’t it be denied the right to do business in North Carolina? Shouldn’t its facilities be turned over to more responsible utilities? After all, the vulnerability of coal ash impoundments has been making headlines since December of 2008 when a TVA storage pond in East Tennessee burst and contaminated the Clinch River. Clean-up efforts continue to this day, and costs have exceeded $1.5 billion. TVA said it could never happen again, but in January of 2009, not even a full month later, another coal ash pond failed, this time in Alabama.

We need to adopt a broader, transformative economic approach and stop thinking that pleading with companies and government agencies will suffice. We need to (1) change the goal from growth to sustainability, (2) change company reporting to include ecological audits, and (3) change incentives by denying companies the right to operate when they dodge their responsibilities. Under the current economic paradigm, pollution will persist and natural resources, including soils, waters, forests, and oceans, will continue to decline. Only a new economic game plan can protect our shared water resources and prevent pollution.