Friday, December 26, 2008

After The Deluge


Christian Grantham has more ....
What happens when 300 million gallons of toxic coal sludge roars through your town? About what you’d expect:
Holly Schean, a waitress whose home, which she shared with her parents, was swept off its foundation when millions of cubic yards of ash breached a retaining wall early Monday morning, said, “They’re giving their apologies, which don’t mean very much.”

The T.V.A., Ms. Schean said, has not yet declared the house uninhabitable. But, she said: “I don’t need your apologies. I need information.”

Even as the authority played down the risks, the spill reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Similar ponds and mounds of ash exist at hundreds of coal plants around the nation.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxic substances. “Most of that material is inert,” said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”

Oh, I feel so much better now. Thanks, Mr. Francis.

I would not expect the federal government to give you accurate information at this point, Ms. Schean. These are the same people who lied about the air quality at Ground Zero because it was more important that we reopen the New York Stock Exchange.

It’s no great stretch to imagine the government putting the needs of the coal industry above the health and well being of a few Appalachian communities. In fact, it’s already been done:

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter federal controls of coal ash, but backed away in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials. At the time, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of power utilities, estimated that the industry would have to spend up to $5 billion in additional cleanup costs if the substance were declared hazardous. Since then, environmentalists have urged tighter federal standards, and the E.P.A. is reconsidering its decision not to classify the waste as hazardous.

Better late than never. Well, except for people like Holly Schean.

Here’s a sobering thought:

United States coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year, the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste. That is enough to fill more than a million railroad coal cars, according to the National Research Council.

Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps.

Here’s the thing. The coal ash is what’s “scrubbed” out of smokestacks at coal-fired electrical plants. It seems when burning fossil fuels one can spew this stuff into the air, causing all sorts of related environmental problems, or “scrub” it out of smokestacks, which causes related disposal problems.

Alternately, we could decide not to burn coal at all and focus our, er, energies on cleaner technologies. Just a thought.

This is not just a Tennessee problem. This is not just a Kentucky or West Virginia problem. This is happening all over the country. This affects you.

Do something about it.