By Teri Blanton

Quietly, behind the scenes, state and industry officials are planning the largest toxic waste disposal system in Kentucky’s history. The system would deal with 100 million tons of hazardous materials every year.

Where is this system going to be located? Under our land.

No, I’m not kidding.

Right now, we’re putting this waste into our atmosphere and into our lungs. Coal burning power plants operating in Kentucky spew out nearly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution every year, along with a long list of other toxic gases. Most people recognize excessive amounts of carbon and other pollutants in our atmosphere as a serious health and economic problem. Inevitably, and probably soon, federal law and international treaties are going to require that we greatly reduce the amount of our carbon pollution.

Utilities see it coming, and feel some urgency about it. Two problems, though: it conflicts with Kentucky’s mine and burn as much coal as possible for as long as possible obsession, and it is prohibitively expensive.

The first problem is being dealt with as follows: we’ll make modest gestures toward energy efficiency and renewables, the approaches that would actually reduce our pollution. But at the same time, we’ll disparage those solutions as inadequate so that we can keep our obsession with mining and burning the coal that fuels our campaign coffers.

And we’ll even use the emphasis on developing alternative sources of energy to coal’s advantage by declaring that, in Kentucky, synthetic liquids and gas derived from coal qualify as “alternative” fuels.

In terms of cost, investors aren’t willing to risk their capital when there is no possibility of eventual payback, and when the public health liability will never go away.

But that doesn’t deter some Kentucky officials. Taxpayers can help foot the bill, and we can exempt corporations from long-term liability for the pollution they leave permanently with us. And then they’ll require utility customers to pay the cost when we are too far down that path to turn back.

This scenario has been unfolding in the Kentucky General Assembly. The House has been the starting point for proposals that offer hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for companies to convert coal to some other burnable form. Peabody Energy – when legislation was being considered during a 2007 special session called just for them – made it clear that they would do no such business in Kentucky if taxpayers did not help foot the bill.

In the current session, we see a series of proposals in the House Natural Resources Committee designed to create the legal and financing structures to cement the state’s continued unhealthy dependence on coal. The most egregious proposes to greatly expand the powers of state officials to seize private property for the benefit of private companies needing a place to store their carbon waste. The proposal would give the state ownership of all the deep rock strata under our land, 5,500 feet and deeper.

On top of that, after a 10-year closure period, the companies that put their waste under our land are free of any permanent liability. They’ll be long gone, but the waste will be ours to keep forever.

All of this is for a technology that hasn’t been proven feasible on a 100-million-tons-a-year scale, or anything close to it.

Another proposal gives private companies the power to use eminent domain to grab the land they need to build and operate pipelines to move around their carbon dioxide, from power plants to disposal sites. As if letting these handful of companies take our land weren’t enough, House members also agreed to have taxpayers help the companies pay for their pipelines.

It’s rather amazing that this massive toxic waste disposal system, that does nothing to address excessive carbon production, is being developed with little public knowledge or discussion. There is little apparent awareness in the General Assembly itself of what is going on.

We know that we will be burning coal to make electricity for some years to come. The Kentucky General Assembly is taking this to an extreme by supporting programs that will obligate us to mine and burn as much coal as possible at whatever the cost. If giving our land, our health and our tax dollars are what legislators believe they owe to the coal industry, then the cost is too high.
Blanton is a fellow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
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