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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beyond the Headlines:

Air Date: Week of

Coal ash in the Dan River (photo: Rick Dove/Waterkeeper Alliance, CreativeCommons 2.0)

In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Daily Climate publisher Peter Dykstra and Living on Earth host Steve Curwood discuss some surprising environmental rip-offs.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. We head beyond the headlines now, with Peter Dykstra, the publisher of DailyClimate.org and Environmental Health News - that's EHN.org. He's on the line from Conyers, Georgia. Hi there, Peter.

DYKSTRA: Hi Steve, this week we're going to take a look at a few different things on the theme of people’s ability to fool other people.

CURWOOD: Ah ha, hustles. What’s the first one?

DYKSTRA: Well, we picked up this story from Midwest Energy News. You know, when there’s a huge coal ash spill, like the one in North Carolina last month, we’re reminded that coal ash is hard to store, that there’s a lot of it, it’s dangerous to spill and it can be loaded with toxic substances. So what do they do with some of the Midwestern coal power plants? They give away coal ash to local governments.

CURWOOD: So you’re saying that some local governments gladly take what no one else would want? What’s the deal?

DYKSTRA: Local highway departments in the Midwest use the coal ash to spread it on icy winter roads for better traction.

CURWOOD: But hang on...the icy roads melt, and the coal ash gets carried into waterways then.

DYKSTRA: Bingo. Coal burning power plants in the Midwest give away an estimated quarter-million tons of coal ash every year. That’s at least three times the size of the big spill in North Carolina. And for that spill, Duke Energy is facing a billion-dollar cleanup tab. While instead in the Midwest, you haul the coal ash away and you spill it for free.

CURWOOD: But you just told us the stuff is toxic. What happens to the water quality?

DYKSTRA: There are varying levels known to exist of cadmium, chromium and other heavy metals that are toxics. We don’t know exactly what the impacts are; the EPA has come up with a new testing method. There was one very reassured public works director in Iowa who’s quoted in the story, sounded a little bit gullible, and what he said was, “They wouldn’t give it to us if it wasn’t safe.”

CURWOOD: Oh, Peter, I’m almost afraid to ask about the next one you’ve got.

DYKSTRA: Well, this one comes from Beth Daley, and Beth is a longtime reporter for the Boston Globe. She now works at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She took a deep dive into all sorts of public records relating to federal flood insurance payments, and she focused on one house. It’s a house on the beach that common sense would tell you has no business being where it is. It has a beautiful ocean view, and the problem is every few years the ocean comes to visit the house and ends up in the living room.

There are nine separate grants that she found, or federally subsidized insurance claims. They’ve literally propped up this house in Scituate, Mass. south of Boston. It’s gotten at least three-quarters of a million in taxpayer bailouts for this home that worth a little more than a million. And there are hundreds of homes like it, and the FEMA program that supports flood insurance is $24 billion in debt.

CURWOOD: I guess it’s more than living rooms that are getting soaked here. I thought Congress moved to overhaul this program a couple of years ago, but it’s recently backed off?

DYKSTRA: Uh, that’s correct, there were some coastal homeowners that saw their insurance rates shoot way off the charts to levels that were deemed to be truly unfair, so Congress made some fixes, but that rolled back the program and the bottom line is that taxpayers are still being soaked to subsidize flood insurance in places where regular commercial insurers simply refuse to go.

CURWOOD: What about our weekly dive into history?

DYKSTRA: Well, here’s another one on the theme of people fooling other people, but we have to go back 510 years to find it, the year 1504. It was Christopher Columbus’s fourth journey to the New World. Columbus didn’t always slaughter and enslave the Native people he found, in this particular case he just swindled them. His expedition was marooned in Jamaica, they were nearly out of food, and then one day the native chiefs started to refuse to feed them. Columbus told them that the Gods would show their anger that very night, at least that’s how the story goes. And Columbus knew there would be a lunar eclipse happening that night, and when the moon turned blood-red and then disappeared, he had completely punked the natives and the crew got to eat.

CURWOOD: So it carried on with native folks. I’m thinking about the $24 worth of beads that the Dutch used to purchase Manhattan.

DYKSTRA: Yes, that one worked out pretty well in the real estate market too.

CURWOOD: Peter Dykstra is the publisher of EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. There are links to these stories at our website LOE.org. Thanks, Peter.

DYKSTRA: Thanks a lot, Steve. We'll talk to you soon.



Read Beth Daley’s story here

Read about free Midwest coal ash here

Columbus Eclipse Legend


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