One week ago, Kingston, Tennessee, woke up to find that over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge had surged out of a poorly built and poorly maintained containment pond, one of three at the Kingston Coal Plant, after the dam holding back acres of inky black and toxic coal ash sludge failed. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal corporation that operates the Kingston Coal Plant, first reported that 360 millions gallons of coal ash sludge had flooded over 400 acres of local watersheds and river, then the estimate was revised to 540 million gallons, and now the best estimate puts the amount as over 1 billion gallons. This puts the amount spilled as more than 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster and, in fact, more than every drop of petroleum used in the United States that day. This coal sludge spill is simply unprecedented in size and scale and should become the stunning example of exactly how dirty coal really is.
Numbers aside, as it is impossible to really comprehend the scale of the disaster in words – this is a very dramatic example of how our consumption and reliance on coal is quite literally reshaping our world. Whether by flooding 400 acres of beautiful Tennessee valleys and rivers with six feet of coal ash, or blowing the tops off of literally hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, or changing the global climate itself through massive releases of carbon dioxide – the coal industry has perhaps the greatest impact of any industry in the world – yet we barely know it. Coal plants intake almost 20% of the United States’ freshwater, uses almost half of our freight railroad capacity, and leaves behind scarred landscapes, poor and exploited communities, kills vulnerable people – in fact, the Kingston Coal plant is estimated to cut short the lives of over 149 people a year – and coal is the leading source of global warming pollutants from the United States.
Coal power devours landscapes, poisons the land and water, and yet it remains virtually unregulated in critical areas of impact. Smokestack emissions of sulfur dioxide (SOX), nitrous oxide (NOX), and mercury are regulated – to a certain extent – with SOX regulated through a Cap & Trade system that has been adopted by most large environmental groups as the mechanism to tackle global warming. However, federally mandated scrubbers on coal plants have led to the concentration of pollutants in coal ash, everything from arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium, and uranium. Yet, coal ash is not regulated as toxic waste – although the EPA is ‘considering’ doing so’.
The Bush Administration has even worked at redefining the word ‘fill’ to allow the coal industry to be unregulated by the Clean Water Act and allow the destruction of mountains and pushing the rubble into streambeds and valleys. Carbon dioxide is still unregulated, despite efforts to pass a federal climate bill and the Supreme Court ruling that the Executive Branch is obligated to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Unregulated, unaccountable, and corrupt is the way that many coal companies operate. Little surprise then that TVA announced as a safety measure that residents impacted by the coal ash spill should boil their water – thereby concentrating the heavy metal contaminants – instead of providing safe drinking water to residents.
In ‘How to the Save the Coal Industry‘, Devilstower at DailyKos, forecasts the future of the industry: “If the industry works hard — if it gets rid of [Mountaintop Removal Mining], if it supports deployment of electric cars, if it cooperates in the establishment of tougher regulations and works together with the union — the industry can hold off a serious public effort to crush it. But when you look out past the next decade, there’s no way coal mining can hold back the future.” I think we may be overdue for a serious public effort to crush to the coal industry.
If the EPA is considering regulating coal ash, then they damn well better get on it. The TVA may be a public entity but these holding ponds for coal ash are scattered across the US landscape, a continual threat for every community and living thing downstream. Since the TVA is a federal corporation, it might be a good example of how the incoming congress and administration can prove that they are serious about tackling global warming and protecting communities. Greenpeace is calling for a criminal investigation and one might be good to have some accountability for this disaster, but we need an investigation of why we are allowing an industry that kills tens of thousands of people a year, pillages our communities, and despoils our landscape to exist in the first place – especially as we have figured out other ways to keep the lights on. Some groups have called for a moratorium on new coal plants, but perhaps we need to start thinking about phasing out these plants – hopefully before a major disaster, next time.