Monday, 18 March 2013

So Long And Thanks For All The Ash

So the chimneys of Cockenzie coal power station have stopped belching. After 45 years the plant has been switched off. It could generate 3,500 Gigawatt hours of electricity, enough to supply a million homes. Yet we seem to be managing fine without.

There’s the obvious question about what happens next on the site. Iberdrola have permission to convert the plant to gas but they’re waiting for the UK Government to decide on prices and general direction.

The gas option would lock us into burning more fossil fuels. As we know, we already have more fossil fuel reserves than we can safelyburn if we want to limit climate change. In short, some of this stuff has to stay in the ground.

And at a local level if the gas idea steams ahead I’d like to think East Lothian folk would make a fuss about the massive pipelinethat would be required across the county – through some incredibly productive farmland – to connect the station to the gas grid.

But perhaps the overlooked issue here is the legacy Cockenzie’s coal-burning has left us. The fact that Bill Kelly flicked the off switch last Friday morning after breakfast has perhaps created the impression a line has been drawn under the station’s activities. But just a short distance to the west there’s a live legacy and it’s not pretty.

Check out these fly ash lagoons. They extend for miles along the coast to the mouth of the River Esk. I’ve blogged before about thebeautiful bits. In some places nature has taken over and created some wonderful habitats, and it’s a superb green space on the doorstep of East Lothian’s biggest town. But some chunks remain grim and in very poor condition. By all accounts Scottish Power don’t give a hoot. They have bigger issues to consider.

There is a proposal to have the ash lagoons area designated as a local nature reserve but until Scottish Power get their finger out there’s little anyone can do.

The legacy of burning coal for half a century also reminds me of what fly ash is. It’s highly toxic and needs constantly wetted to prevent it blowing around. Coincidentally this week’s East Lothian Courier contained an archive article from 1988 in which an ash storm from the lagoons covered houses, cars and the golf course at Musselburgh. One person, with no previous history of respiratory problems, was diagnosed as suffering from bronchitis.

I’m also constantly reminded of East Lothian’s coal-mining and burning legacy thanks to the high prevalence of diseases like emphysema.

Before Christmas East Lothian Council nodded through theidea of replacing Cockenzie with another fossil-fuel plant yet it’s going to great lengths to consult on guidance for planning permission relating to windturbines. It all seems rather back to front. Where we have a chance to generate power cleanly we should grab it, and where there’s a risk of repeating dirty follies we should say no thanks.

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