As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dirty Coal Creates More Suffering

That horrible coal ash spill in Tennessee is proving to be even bigger than expected.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, gave way on Monday. But on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.

The amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.

A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority’s largest.

Some would call it "larger" than the amount originally thought to be in the pond, others would say "twice as much." And now it's in the drinking water.

Coal ash (or fly ash) is really nasty stuff, with multiple carcinogens and heavy metals and even radioactive elements like uranium and thorium contained in it, all of which can create a public health hazard. In addition, it's generated when coal is burned, and no matter what is done with the carbon, the residue remains and must be put into landfills or captured and stored at the plant. Power plants generated 71.1 million tons of fly ash in 2005. Incredibly, some of it is recycled and used in things like footpaths, leading to contamination. But I don't think we've ever seen levels like this released, and certainly not into a reservoir. Scientific American has more.

Regardless of whether we have developed "clean coal" technology to mitigate the effects of carbon, the problem of fly ash would persist. Which is why it is so stupid for prominent politicians, including the President-elect to speak laudably of the promise of clean coal. I just saw an ad this week featuring Barack Obama put together by the coal industry, using campaign footage of him in coal country:

"Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent!...We put a man on the moon in 10 years. You can't tell me we can't figure out a way to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work!"

There's campaign rhetoric that is relatively harmless and there's this validation of a dirty industry that has very real effects. Big Coal spent $45 million dollars this year to promote their product, which is currently to blame for one of the biggest environmental disasters in American history. Coal is not clean, nor will it ever be. Anyone who says otherwise is part of the problem.

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