Chemical Pollution – sources and cures

What good does it do us to just bemoan the pollution of the earth, adding a new scare story nearly every day? We do need to know about these assaults on us, our biome and our planet, so we’ll discuss that a little but we are more interested in sources.

The two most problematical kinds of pollution occur in water and air. Why? Mostly because these are fluids that permeate our planet, going everywhere and carrying off anything that enters into them.

Water: Have you ever thought about the locations of industrial plants, especially chemical plants? They are most often located on rivers or ocean shores, though lakes are a close second and the occasional creek serves well. Why would this be? Water is needed for almost every industrial process. Sometimes it is used for dilution, sometimes for washing or cleaning and other times for cooling. It is so convenient to put a pipe into a river, bring clean water into a plant, use it for the above purposes, then discharge it into a grate or a canal or a storage pond in hopes that it will either run back into the river or evaporate into the air. As it runs back into the river, it can take all of the chemicals that have dripped or leaked from pipes or vessels back into the water with it. If the pollution is so egregious, such as the fly ash from a power plant, the mixture may be sent into a gigantic pond to just sit and evaporate. If more wet dirt is added to the pond every day, it may never get a chance to evaporate until one day, the wet banks and berms holding the pond together may give way as happened to a Duke Energy pond in North Carolina in 2014 filling up the Dan River with heavy metals and black sludge, in a river that people use for drinking water downstream. Even worse was a storage pond collapse in 2009 from the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant that clogged and polluted a river for the next fifty years at least. When these events happen, and they are not rare, the contamination is severe and UNFIXABLE. All that they can actually do, when the smoke clears, is let the water keep running until all of the contamination is swept to the sea, which is no solution since the sea is not available to be freely contaminated either. And in human terms, the river may take forever to be clean again.

So, why does this happen? Why is the plant on the shore of a river in the first place? Simple greed and laziness! It is cheaper to use the river as a sewer and it is easier to design the plant in this lazy way. Why do we allow this? New plants are being sited every week. Why don’t we ban the building of any industrial plant near a waterway? Why do we give industrial plants easy permission to use a waterway as their overflow, especially in the event of an accident? Let’s not allow this anymore. That is a first defense.

Can plants exist without this easy in and easy out for water? Usually they have any number of ways to make up for limited water supplies. If the water is used for cooling, then they can build cooling towers to cool their water supply for use over and over by evaporation of water into the air. This could cause some problems, but as a rule, the cooling water is clean and puts nothing but water vapor into the air. Cooling towers are found in millions of chemical plants and are standard design.

Is the water used up in the process, such as when plaster is made from water and lime for making dry wall? A pipeline to a river can provide all the water needed so long as there is no pipeline leading back to the waterway.

Here is the worst application. Is the water used for cleaning and then discharged into the environment? This is the application that must be prohibited. Instead of using cheap piping, the plant will have to be made with piping, pumps, valves and connections that are so well made that they are not going to leak – ever! And if they do leak a bit, they will have covers and trays to catch all the leaks. Ditto with the vessels in which reactions take place. Just like oil tankers have now been forced to be double-hulled to be sure to catch any spill, vessels can be double hulled and can have large catchbasins to catch any leak, even if a vessel bursts unexpectedly. Yes, it will be a lot more expensive. But that is the cost of production, even though the company would prefer to call contamination of our environments an externality – a free gift that we pay for, not them.

So this is the first line of defense of our waterways. It isn’t difficult or subtle. We just need to change the politics of industrial design so that pollution is controlled and prevented. Because this changes the DESIGN of production, it is a ZERO WASTE CHANGE. Note that I am not describing any cleanup later, after it is too late. All the planning must occur up front, when the production processes are designed.

What about air pollution? Here is a typical interaction between industry and the US EPA in Texas. Read the article. Ethylene oxide is a gas used for making polymers and for sterilizing medical instruments. It wouldn’t be used for sterilization if it weren’t pretty toxic. The EPA says that industry cannot discharge ethylene oxide into the air the way they are used to doing. So industry comes back and claims, self servingly, that guess what, ethylene oxide isn’t as toxic as the EPA claims. In other words, they can keep on discharging into the air because it kills fewer people than the EPA is claiming. So we only get a little sick, and only are driven to hospitals once a year instead of five times. Industry wants a free ride and they are ready to pull all the strings to keep the cash register clanging. The people and living things in the environment can go to hell. The industry wants to keep on poisoning their environment because it saves them money. And if animals and insects and people are only sickened instead of outright dying, well they can live with that. Generous of them! Why do we allow it? Because they are making money by making a product and we are just trying to stay healthy, which is accorded a much lower priority.

What is the Zero Waste solution. Simple! Force manufacturers to use high quality equipment that does not allow ethylene oxide to escape at all. Will they holler about how expensive that is? Of course they will. But our health is worth it TO US, NOT TO THEM.