Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coal comes home to roost

Just when we were all beginning to warm to the idea of "clean coal" and a modern energy future that even the Jetsons would marvel at, King Coal goes and ruins it.

Within the last month two significant highly toxic waste spills have wrecked parts of the southern Appalachia and Tennessee Valley. The waste is what the coal industry calls "coal ash" and "slurry." Coal ash is a toxic sludge that contains high levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic -- all of which are known carcinogens. A slurry, in the case of the second spill in Alabama, is less toxic than coal ash, but does contain high levels of boron, cadmium, molybdenum and selenium that are way above safety standards.

The spills are yet another result of Bush-era deregulation. While the coal industry is far from the scandals of Wall $treet, both lack the watchdogs necessary to keep the rest of us from paying the brunt of the cleanup -- be it a government bailout or an emergency cleanup crew funded by our tax dollars. To date, there exists no federal regulation on how coal companies store this highly toxic waste.

The first spill occurred at the Kingston Fossil Fuel plant that sits on the Tennessee River forty miles west of Knoxville. The earthen dam holding the toxic pond dumped over a billion gallons of coal ash across 300 acres of Tennessee and causing yet-unknown damage to the water supply and ecology of the region. From the NYT:
The inventory, disclosed by the Tennessee Valley Authority on Monday at the request of The New York Times, showed that in just one year, the plant’s byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems.

Obviously, not your average concentration of toxic substances. Its no wonder that cancer rates are higher among people living nearby coal and oil power plants. In 2007 the EPA put together a study showing the damage coal and oil ash waste sites have on our water supply.

The second spill occurred just downstream on the same river, a few miles over the Tennessee-Alabama border. The Widows Creek Fossil plant dumped over 10,000 gallons of its own slurry into the Tennessee River.

There is something revealing about these eco-disasters occurring so closely together, both in time and geography. That is, that "clean coal" no longer is on the table. Clean coal was about being able to burn coal while releasing less global-warming gases into the air. Yet here the underbelly of the coal industry, one of its many dirty secrets, blows up in our faces. Its not just the air we breathe that the burning of coal contaminates. These two spills could contaminate the drinking water of the region, not to mention the untold impacts they will have on the surrounding environment.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other slurry ponds sit waiting to be dealt with. True, some of these ponds, like the one in Alabama, can eventually be used as an additive to industrial processes like manufacturing sheetrock. But to pretend that these pools of toxicity are not dangerous to our children, communities and local wildlife is akin to arguing that cigarettes couldn't be related to lung cancer.

The worst part of all of this is the blatant cover-up by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This from the NYT:

For days, authority officials have maintained that the sludge released in the spill is not toxic, though coal ash has long been known to contain dangerous concentrations of heavy metals. On Monday, a week after the spill, the authority issued a joint statement with the E.P.A. and other agencies recommending that direct contact with the ash be avoided and that pets and children should be kept away from affected areas.

Residents complained that the authority had been slow to issue information about the contents of the ash and the water, soil and sediment samples taken in and around the spill.

“They think that the public is stupid, that they can’t put two and two together,” said Sandy Gupton, a registered nurse who hired an independent firm to test the spring water on her family’s 300-acre farm, now sullied by sludge from the spill. “It took five days for the T.V.A. to respond to us.”

It seems we heard the same thing after Katrina. Simply insert FEMA for T.V.A. in the quotes above and there seems to a lot in common.

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