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Real-life coal disaster pops coal industry pr bubble

Pete Altman

Posted December 23, 2008

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It is always a headache for corporate pr flacks when reality intrudes and negates months of planning and millions in spending trying to persuade the public of something that just isn't so.

So the flacks at coal front-group ACCCE (pronounce "acky") must have a hell of a migraine today, what with the 400-acre toxic spill of coal ash from a coal plant in Harriman, Tennessee in the wee hours of the morning. As the Tennessean reports,

"Millions of yards of ashy sludge broke through a dike at TVA's Kingston coal-fired plant Monday...About 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry - enough to fill 798 Olympic-size swimming pools - rolled out of the pond...Cleanup will take at least several weeks, or, in a worst-case scenario, years...The wave of ash and mud toppled power lines, covered Swan Pond Road and ruptured a gas line. It damaged 12 homes..."

But the long-term impacts could be far greater. Coal ash - the stuff left over after coal is burned - is loaded with toxic metals and other hazardous substances. According to a 2000 report by the Clean Air Task Force, coal waste contains

"Concentrated levels of contaminants like arsenic, mercury, chromium and cadmium that can damage the nervous systems and other organs, especially in children."

This is bad news, because the toxic pollutants in coal ash waste move don't stay put, even in the absence of spills. Studies for the EPA show that pollutants from ash piles make their way into nearby groundwater, where they pose a significant risk to surrounding communities:  

"the excess cancer risks for children drinking groundwater contaminated with arsenic from power plant wastes have been found to be as high as one-in-one hundred - ten thousand times higher than the Agency's own regulatory goal of reducing cancer risks to less than one-in-one million."

How much of this toxic trash is out there? According to the Task Force,

"Every year, over 100 million tons of these wastes are produced at nearly 600 coal and oil-fired power plants. Seventy-six million tons are primarily disposed of at the power plant site in unlined and unmonitored wastewater lagoons, landfills and mines."

Mmmmm...delicious. But don't expect the coal industry to change their strategy. How much do they want Americans to think that coal can be clean?  Just in time for Christmas, one of ACCCE's chief flacks recently compared coal to a 'gift' and encouraged Americans to "Put coal in the stocking of your favorite people."

I can think of somewhere the victims of the Tennessee disaster would probably like to stick that coal right now. But maybe we should just settle for leaving coal in the ground. 

===Update: Just yesterday, nearly 40 groups called for more stringent regulation of coal combustion wastes. And coal plants produce 129 million tons of wastes per year, making it the 2nd largest source of industrial waste in the United States.

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DaveChgoDec 23 2008 10:02 PM

Fascinating and disturbing. The task force's finding are deeply disturbing when you think about the sludge emerging from the old dirty coal plants. All those old plants need to be shut down as soon as we can find something to replace their power. I wonder if those findings are one of the things that led the same group to come out so forcefully in favor of coal gasification or so-called clean coal projects.

LT SchultzDec 26 2008 02:38 PM

The TVA announced (on Christmas day--probably to make sure the announcement got plenty of media exposure) that the spill is actually much larger. Somehow, it's now acknowledged to be more than twice as large as the capacity of the ash pond itself.

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