Toxic sludge leaks expose true costs of coal

Tennessee disaster "black eye" for clean coal lobby

Feature story - January 12, 2009
“Greenpeace could not have staged a bigger anti-coal demonstration than what you unintentionally put on” – Representative Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, to the Tennessee Valley Authority.For the second time in less than three weeks, a coal fired power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has leaked toxic coal ash into a nearby river.

The aftermath of a giant toxic coal ash spill from the Kingston Fossil plant, Tennessee. Over a billion gallons of toxic sludge was released into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, tributaries of the Tennessee River.

The spill from the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northeastern Alabama on 10 January is reported to contain even more toxic chemicals than the earlier larger spill from the Kingston Fossil Plant on 22 December.

Described by US broadcaster MSNBC as "giving the coal industry's clean coal campaign a black eye", the Kingston disaster released over a billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, tributaries of the Tennessee River, which supplies drinking water to millions of people. Widows Creek lies on the same river.

Kingston spill is 48 times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill

The size of the Kingston disaster, double that of initial reports, is 48 times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The sludge that had spilled out of its storage pool at the 50 year old Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant, operated by the TVA toppled houses, muddied rivers and streams, and before long dead fish were found downstream.

Calling for a criminal investigation into the Kingston spill Kate Smolski from our US office said, "If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today."

The Widows Creek spill highlights again that there has clearly been a drastic failure of safety protocols at the TVA, and makes our demand for a criminal investigation into the failure of the TVA to prevent the Kingston spill all the more urgent.

Local environmental groups and residents have stated their intent to sue the TVA under the US Clean Water Act and other statutes. In addition, the US Senate Environment and Public Works committee held a hearing to explore tighter regulation of coal ash to prevent these disasters in the future. Members of Congress served by TVA have said the spill stands to affect coal-fired generation across the US. 

Coal ash, yet another dirty legacy of burning coal

Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, contains significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The toxic sludge contained such delights as cadmium, mercury, lead, chromium, arsenic and benzene to name a few.

Shockingly, the response of the local authorities was to utterlydownplay the dangers and to advise people to boil their water. Thatwould be good advice if boiling water offered protection from arsenicand lead. But it doesn't.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests have found that water samples near the Kingston spill contain arsenic, known to promote cancer, at more than 100 times the acceptable level.

Disasters give "clean coal" a black eye

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Both disasters are indeed a "black eye" for the clean coal lobby. They show, yet again, that "clean coal" is a contradiction in terms. The last few weeks have highlighted coal ash as yet another drastic example of why coal is always dirty.

As Rick Hind, from our US office said about the Tennessee disaster "this wouldn't have happened at a wind farm."

Some coal plants claiming to be "clean" may be controlling air pollution better, but it's not as though their toxic residues no longer exist - it's just that now they become solid byproducts, such as fly ash, "stored" in unlined ponds or pits near the plants. With more than 1,300 dumps across the US, production of these "post combustion" wastes has dramatically increased in recent years. But, there has been no proper regulation of coal ash from power plants by the US government.

The true cost of coal

Coal ash is just one part of coal's filthy legacy. Our True Cost of Coal report shows that just some of the damages caused by coal cost the world €360 billion in 2007. Many of coal's impacts simply can't be assigned monetary values at all, but we are all paying the price.

From mining to combustion (burning) to waste, coal leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. Not only is coal the single greatest contributor to the greatest crisis facing our planet - climate change; but it is also responsible for air pollution, illnesses, human rights abuses, forced displacement of communities, blowing up mountains, contaminating water, drying up lakes, reducing crop yields and killing people.

In the US alone, some 24,000 people die every year from illnesses, including heart disease, lung cancer and breathing ailments, caused by pollution from coal-fired power plants. Just by operating, the Tennessee coal plant that caused the coal spill potentially cuts short the lives of more than 140 people per year.

It's time to quit coal and save the climate

And that's all before you consider coal's impact on our climate. Climate change is the greatest threat the world has ever known, its effects are already killing 150,000 people a year, with millions more displaced and hungry. The world has enough technically accessible renewable energy to meet current energy demands six times over. So what's the excuse for burning coal? That's right, there isn't one.

We can save the climate but only if we quit coal. Our Energy Revolution blueprint shows how renewable energy, combined with greater energy efficiency, can cut global CO2 emissions by 50 percent, and deliver half the world's energy needs by 2050.

It's time to lay coal to rest for good, and embrace 21st century solutions, such as wind, wave and solar. These are clean, safe, reliable, and available faster than new coal plants. 

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