Effect Measure

Will Big Coal get its ash kicked?

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.


  1. #1 Steve
    January 1, 2009

    You didn’t mention radioactives from coal plants, but I think it’s true that coal plants put out far, far more radioactive emissions than any western nuclear power plant ever came close to emitting.

    You’ve seen this clean coal ad, right?

  2. #2 revere
    January 1, 2009

    Steve: No. I forgot to mention it. But you are correct. It’s not clear this is of public health significance, though. It might. I don’t have an informed opinion on it.

  3. #3 Steve
    January 1, 2009

    Oh, I don’t know that the radioactive emissions from coal plants are significant from a public health perspective.

    What I don’t get it why, in the face of all the bad stuff you pointed out about coal (and more), influential public health people don’t embrace and promote nuclear energy.

    Happy New Year!

  4. #4 MoM
    January 1, 2009

    I love that ad (and the others in the series). A visit to the This is reality website is… instructive. http://action.thisisreality.org/facts

  5. #5 revere
    January 1, 2009

    Steve: Because it’s not about “radioactivity.” It’s about high consequence accidents from an industry that is untrustworthy (the same industry responsible for this coal ash spill, the power industry) and the problem of waste disposal and diversion. Coal is one of the worst ways to generate energy. Nuclear is fine for generating it but its life cycle is problematic with significant costs (which is why they insist on being indemnified). There are other alternatives besides these two. Condemning coal doesn’t imply accepting nuclear.

  6. #6 Steve
    January 1, 2009

    I hope you’re right about there being other alternatives for baseline power. People talk about a worldwide grid to move energy from windy and daylit ares of the globe to areas where energy is needed, but talk about cost and time lag… Same with energy storage.

    I don’t mean to hijack your post Revere. I agree completely about coal. I just hope that you are right about alternatives for baseline power. I’m not hopeful at all.

  7. #7 Lea
    January 1, 2009

    Would love to hear MRK’s comments on this. Since he lives in Tennessee he’d know more than what the lapdog media is telling us.
    Happy New Year MRK.

    For anyone that has the time or is interested:

    The Energy Challenge
    No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’

    DARMSTADT, Germany, From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle. But these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace. ……….


  8. #8 daedalus2u
    January 1, 2009

    I know a lot about coal ash, I work for a company that has recycled over 5 million tons of it using equipment I invented (that information probably outs me, but so does all my NO stuff).

    Flyash does have toxic metals in it, so does every other thing on this planet. As we all know, what makes a poison is the dose. The plant is reported to burn 583 tons of coal per hour. That makes it about 1200 MW. At ~10% ash, that is about 500,000 tons of ash per year, or about a billion pounds. The toxics reported in thousands of pounds represents parts per million in that ash, as in

    Arsenic 45 parts ppm
    Lead 49 ppm
    Barium 1,400 ppm
    Chromium 91 ppm
    Manganese 140 ppm

    The Earth’s crust has these materials too (CRC 56th ed)

    Arsenic 5 parts ppm
    Lead 16 ppm
    Barium 250 ppm
    Chromium 200 ppm
    Manganese 1,000 ppm

    The drinking water standard for arsenic is 10 ppb. To get 10 ppb from this flyash you would need 10 micrograms arsenic per liter, or about 200 grams of flyash per liter. Of course some arsenic compounds are soluble and so you might get arsenic leached from a large amount of ash into a small amount of water.

    We recycle flyash so it doesn’t go into ponds or landfills. We use it as a substitute for cement, which reduces the amount of cement needed, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions (to produce a ton of cement releases about a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere). This is a productive use of it, where the flyash becomes encapsulated in concrete.

    I agree that coal is a nasty dirty fuel, and it kills a lot of people, miners as well as people from air pollution. The alternatives are more expensive. A carbon tax that correctly accounts for the costs of global warming mitigation would go a long way to rationalizing the economic choices regarding energy sources.

  9. #9 yogi-one
    January 1, 2009

    The legacy of “industry will police itself” throws us yet another catastrophe.
    No, industry will not police itself. Does anyone not understand that at this point?

    If 4G NP can use nuclear waste as raw material, that maybe justifies giving it a small slice of the energy pie, but certainly not a majority of it. Given the time and cost factors, we should not wait around for it.

    I’m liking the plasma gasification solution, but we have yet to prove that is viable on the scale to power whole metro areas (although some towns are working on that problem now).

    What I like about both solutions is they use the waste we have already produced as raw material for more energy generation.

    Throw me in with the crowd that doesn’t see the point of government welfare huge polluting, obsolete energy technologies.

    Time to get rid of the welfare CEO queens that use our taxpayer money to buy expensive toys for themselves while not working an honest day the whole year.
    Down with CEO welfare queens!

  10. #10 revere
    January 1, 2009

    daedulus: I don’t agree. Coal ash probably wouldn’t pass a test for hazardous waste and the area that has now been inundated with it will be difficult to clean up. You won’t easily be able to use it for many beneficial purposes (schools, playgrounds, agriculture might be compromised, groundwater possibly contaminated). Arsenic contamination — from natural sources — is a major public health hazard in many parts of the world. Uranium is in the earth’s crust, too, but we technologically enhance exposure to it. Note we are talking about wet coal ash that has not been recycled in any way. What is a bioavailable in it is yet to be determined. But this is an environmental catastrophe for that area and the industry.

  11. #11 Hank Roberts
    January 2, 2009

    Funny, I recall reading that it’s possible to identify individual coal mines and the plants using their coal from far downwind because the content is so well known that the residue is as specific as that from an individual volcano.

    And there are specific grades and specifications for fly ash and it’s being put into all sorts of places — concrete, plastic, soil along highway embankments:

    I wonder why this one particular impoundment is so hard to describe now that it’s spread over the landscape.

  12. #12 Hank Roberts
    January 2, 2009

    Oh, wait — was that “fly ash” or “bottom ash” or both?
    Constituents differ a lot and will certainly have to be determined for that specific coal source and plant and combustion process. But it’s amazing how many materials can be leached out of the ash into water at room temperature, I found mention of recovering germanium that way profitably.
    Much else.

    Hey, cool!

    Chronic Nasal Instillation of Residual-Oil Fly Ash (ROFA) Induces Brain Lipid Peroxidation and �
    AC Zanchi, CD Venturini, M Saiki, N Saldiva, T � – Inhalation Toxicology, 2008

  13. #13 revere
    January 2, 2009

    Hank: I’m guessing it’s both. The problem is getting rid of the solid waste from coal burning and both are solid waste that has to be gotten rid of.

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