One tradition of News Years Day in the US is the college football bowl game. When I was young I always watched the Rose Bowl (my state university was in the Big Ten league), but I have gotten away from it and don’t expect to be glued to the TV today. But there will still be something glued to the football field, at least metaphorically: the dirty leavings of “Clean Coal.” An American college football field is 120 yards long and 53.34 yards wide. That’s 6400 square yards. Last week a retention pond containing coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal fired power plant let loose 5.4 million cubic yards, enough to cover to the depth of 3 feet 840 college football fields.
Clean Coal is 1984 Newspeak for one of the dirtiest energy sources on the planet. There’s a lot of bad stuff in coal, some of it part of the material (heavy metals, minerals), some of it manufactured as part of the energy generation process (CO2, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides). Advocates of “clean coal technology” are mainly coal and power companies and politicians in coal states, aided and abetted by politicians from elsewhere out of ignorance, greed or expediency. They claim that the notorious environmental impact of coal fired energy can be almost eliminated by removing the bad stuff before it goes up the stack. We don’t know how to do that yet for carbon dioxide, but even if we could, not everything goes up the stack. A lot of it is removed or left behind in the form of hazardous waste, which the industry calls coal ash. How much bad stuff?
In a single year, a coal-fired electric plant deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic materials in a holding pond that failed last week, flooding 300 acres in East Tennessee, according to a 2007 inventory filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.
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.
And the holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a T.V.A. plant 40 miles west of Knoxville, contained many decades’ worth of these deposits. (Shaila Dewan, New York Times)
Sounds pretty bad when put that way. So the EPA and TVA didn’t want to put it that way. Days after this catastrophic spill (which miraculously didn’t kill anyone outright), both TVA and EPA said about the sludge, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Now they are telling residents to avoid contact with it and keep their pets and children away from it altogether. Information about levels of toxic materials is very slow to come out, even though the tests can be done in a working day. Thus the EPA and TVA have had the information for a good week, but very little data on what was in the sludge or the levels at various places where it has been sampled has been released. Sounds like they are trying to avoid owning up to how bad it really is. Maybe not, but they are inviting this kind of speculation by their secrecy.
The Army Corps of Engineers is preparing to dredge the section of the Emory River clogged by the spill. They are hiring a private contractor, naturally. Economic stimulus to local business? TVA says it will pay, but since we don’t know the costs yet, we don’t know if they will be able to. They are already facing several lawsuits. Did I hear someone say “bail out”? Apt term for this, although instead of river muck we’ll be bailing money for TVA’s malfeasance. I could be wrong. Anyone want to bet on this?
The Great Irony, of course, is that this happened because the industry has successfully resisted regulation on the basis of cost, and now this company is in for huge clean-up costs and the industry likely will be subject to billions in new rules, rules that were set to go when the Clinton EPA handed off to the Bush administration but then — imagine — were put on the shelf. Earlier I used to phrase “hazardous waste” to describe the toxic leavings of burned coal, but I was using it in the common sense meaning, not the tortured legal meaning. The industry and Bush administration have prevented common sense and the law to come together and so coal ash is not legally a “hazardous waste,” which is a legal designation that triggers regulatory practices designed to prevent exposure to people and the environment:
Increased regulation would bring costs to upgrade or close more than 600 landfills and waste ponds at 440 plants nationwide. While the Environmental Protection Agency put the price tag at $1 billion a year in 2000, power generators predict the cost would be as high as $5 billion, said Jim Roewer, executive director of the industry-funded Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, in a telephone interview. Power generators and ash recyclers predicted a push in Washington for more rules.
New regulations would add to pressures facing generators of coal-fired power such as American Electric Power Co.,Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp., the biggest U.S. coal consumers. The industry already faces the prospects of new limits on emissions that contribute to global warming.
Advocacy groups say the power industry should be responsible for the air and water pollution its coal waste produces, as well as for accidents like the Tennessee avalanche, said Lisa Evans, a New York attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. The EPA identified 67 sites with proven or suspected contamination in a July 2007 report that nonetheless rejected a call for hazardous-waste regulation, she said.
Environmentalists plan to push the administration of President-elect Barack Obama to review coal-waste disposal rules, an issue the next president didn’t talk about during his campaign, Evans said. Democrat Obama’s transition team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.(Alex Nussbaum, Christopher Martin and Daniel Whitten, Bloomberg)
The local politicians are up to the usual. Tennessee Republican Zack Wamp, one of the anti-reglatory Bush crowd, now is crying crocodile tears for his constituents:
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said in a statement that Roane County residents “are rightfully frustrated and anxious” and TVA “should be very aggressive and thorough to ensure that the people in the area are protected and that the drinking water is safe.”
“TVA should set the standard for environmental protection,” he said. “And Congress must hold TVA to a high level of accountability in this regard.”
( Dave Flessner and Andy Sher, The Chattanooga Times Free Press via MSNBC)
Congress should hold them to a high level of accountability? How? By holding a hearing? No. That’s too high a level:
But in an interview, the Chattanoogan voiced reservations about Dr. Smith’s call for congressional hearings. He warned the forum could set the stage for attacks on TVA by the New Deal-era agency’s congressional enemies as well as a general assault from environmentalists opposed to use of coal.
“There may be a need for a hearing … but I don’t want the hearings to turn into a circus where certain TVA bashers turn this into an opportunity to bash TVA and to bash coal,” Rep. Wamp said.
Heaven forbid the TVA or coal should be criticized. Just for a measly 800 plus football field inundation of a town, countryside and river with toxic sludge.