Before we get started, a warning. What you’re about to read is going to sound at first like something cooked up by the same folks who gave us the oxymoronic (and otherwise moronic) advertising slogan “Clean Coal.” It will sound like a fantasy story even a Fox News anchor would not dare announce: “Coal—The Biodiversity Fuel.”
In a paper being published in the journal Conservation Biology, researchers in the Czech Republic, who have been studying bees and wasps, report that some of that country’s endangered species, including four insects that had been presumed regionally extinct, have turned up instead thriving in the fly ash heaps at coal-fired power plants.
Fly ash, as the paper helpfully explains, is what’s left over after a power plant burns coal, and it’s composed of “glass-like particles of mineral residua which are carried out of the boiler in the flow of exhaust gases,” plus bottom ash, boiler slag, and “flue gas desulphurization materials.” To be clear, the “fly” in “fly ash” is not a reference to insects; rather, it has to do with the fact that the substance is so light and fine that it flies up during combustion.
The study found 227 species of bees and wasps, including 35 that were endangered or critically endangered, living at two power plant sites. Some of these insects are important pollinators, and others may be valuable as predators and parasitoids for controlling agricultural pests. According to lead author Robert Tropek, an entomologist with the Czech Academy of Sciences, a follow-up paper will look at five other invertebrate groups also making their last stand on fly ash waste.
Among the creatures populating this man-made habitat, for instance, is a tiger beetle, Cicindela arenaria viennensis (pictured at right), a remarkably swift predator known as the cheetah of the insect world. Like many of the species in the current study, that beetle thrives in inland dunes and banks of drift sand, a habitat that has been systematically eliminated from much of Central Europe to make “wasteland.” Tropek says he came up with the idea for the study after photographs of fly ash deposits reminded him of that lost habitat. (Tropek said the study was funded by the Czech Science Foundation and the University of South Bohemia. Power industry involvement was limited to the sites that allowed access to the power plants and agreed to hold off on reclamation pending the results of the research.)
Tropek has spent much of the past 10 years studying the wildlife of man-made wastelands, partly because he likes the spirit of these abandoned sites and partly because they have become genuinely important habitats. “The evidence is accumulating,” he and his co-authors write, “that various post-industrial barrens, such as quarries, gravel pits, spoil heaps and brownfields, often harbor biotic communities of high conservation value, providing refuges for many species vanishing from human-affected landscapes.” These are the only places left for animals to hide out when everything else is in ruins.
To complicate matters, fly ash wastelands are disappearing, being covered over with dirt or planted to minimize the human health hazards of airborne fly ash waste, which may include lung damage. In an email, Tropek acknowledges the difficulty of the issue. The solutions are “quite good for the human environment. On the other hand, it is fatal for the newly established [animal] communities originally specializing in the drift sands.” His ambition is that the coal ash heaps will last at least until people—or power companies—come to their senses and begin “effective restoration of natural habitats.” At that point, “the postindustrial refuges would be the species pool for recolonizing newly restored plots.”
The phenomenon of species forced to find refuge among industrial waste is also common in the United States. What Tropek and his co-authors are reporting, says Lisa Evans, an attorney with the U.S. environmental group Earthjustice, is “not as strange as you think, in terms of coal ash impoundments being used as wildlife habitats.” There are 1070 such impoundments and another 350 coal ash landfills in this country, according to the official count, and they are located generally close to the power plants that produced them. These facilities are often hazardous for humans. In December 2008, for instance, the earthen wall at a coal ash impoundment in Harriman, Tennessee, burst open and dumped 1.7 million cubic yards of waste onto nearby neighborhoods.
For birds, amphibians, and possibly other animals, these compounds are “an attractive nuisance,” the equivalent of toxic waste sites doubling as playgrounds for city children. Biologists use the term “population sinks” to describe them, says Evans. “From the outside they look like habitat for critters, but because of the toxic chemicals in the ash, it becomes their last resting place. They’re attracted to it, but they don’t get out.” A study last year at a power plant in South Carolina, for instance, found that birds nesting around coal fly ash basins inadvertently contaminated their young with arsenic, selenium, cadmium, and strontium. Multiple studies found that amphibians at the same site suffered profound developmental problems and increased mortality.
So, no, coal is never actually going to become the biodiversity fuel, especially given its richly destructive record of mountaintop removal, acid rain, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. But the new studies suggest a fresh way for coal-burning companies to clean up their dirty reputations. Skip the clever advertising campaigns. Instead, spend money to dispose of coal fly ash safely for people and wildlife alike. Then spend a little more to relocate the desperate menagerie huddled in those fly ash heaps to some restored version of their natural habitat.
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Richard Conniff is the author of seven books, including his latest, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. He has won a National Magazine Award, a Gerald Loeb Award, and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. His articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He has written and presented television shows for networks including the National Geographic Channel, TBS, and the BBC. TakePart.com