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Authorities in the South are tallying the extensive damage left by Hurricane Ian. Scientists say climate change is making hurricanes like Ian wetter, windier and more intense all around.
While the immediate destruction is alarming, there are longer-term costs of the climate crisis that we’re only beginning to understand.
Case in point: coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal. A new study from Duke and Appalachian State universities finds that coal ash is contaminating our lakes and rivers. And climate change-driven events are helping to put it there.
Researchers found that large amounts of coal ash have escaped storage ponds, landing in five lakes studied in North Carolina. Those lakes are used for recreation, according to Duke’s Avner Vengosh. Some provide drinking water.
“The presence of coal ash in the open environment poses additional risks we have not been aware of thus far,” Vengosh said.
Climate events like hurricanes can move coal ash out of the ponds where they’re stored, and as those events become more frequent and intense, Vengosh added, “we’re going to see it more and more.”
Coal, an important raw material for producing electric power, has been burned in many states since the 1800s. The coal ash left behind contains toxic elements, said Lisa Evans, senior counsel at the nonprofit Earthjustice. “Carcinogens like arsenic and chromium. Neurotoxins like lead.”
A spokeswoman for the American Coal Council trade association declined to comment on the study, saying she hadn’t had time to review it. But climate scientists like the University of Pennsylvania’s Michael Mann, author of “The New Climate War,” say the research shows the hidden costs of using fossil fuels.
“The warming and the climate change that is caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal is leading to these more extreme flooding events,” Mann said.
Those flooding events are helping to spread contamination from coal ash and other industrial waste. And removing it isn’t cheap, said Seth Feaster of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
“Ratepayers — and, to some extent, taxpayers — are having to pay the cost of cleanup.”
Costs that, Feaster said, add a substantial amount to the tab of burning coal.
Correction (Oct. 3, 2022): A previous version of this story misidentified the institution where Michael Mann works. The text has been corrected.
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