Tennessee Coal Ash Spill-
"Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet." – James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist
As Americans we buy things all the time without wondering the true cost. We buy items off the dollar menu from fast food chains yet we don’t ask about the quality of the meat, or about the treatment of the workers at the lower levels of our society producing that food. We buy affordable clothes from the mall without asking about those who made them, in other country with little to no labor laws protecting them. We go to the supermarket to buy the fresh fish on sale this week without knowing that if we continue to fish the oceans the way we do there won’t be any fish left in fifty years.
It seems our nation has a culture that lives with little or no concern of the impact our choices and decisions have on others, and on our future. And it seems the real cost of the things we buy is passed on to someone else or to the future, like the factory worker in china or our digestion systems in 20 years time, so that the American consumer can have what it wants at a reasonable cost right now.
The same is true for electricity. Our lights always turn on. Our computers always have internet. And we see a bill once a month. But do we ever ask ourselves where the electricity comes from? What is used to make it? Are we paying the real cost for it or is that cost being pushed onto someone else? Is someone else suffering so that I can enjoy my electricity, like the abused factory worker in making my new name brand sneakers?
50% of power plants in the United States run on coal. Every step of the process of removing coal from the ground to shipping it to burning it, has an outside cost that is passed on to someone else so that me and you can pay reasonable rates for electricity.
A town in Tennessee felt the true wrath of this “unseen cost” in December of 2008 when a wall containing a pool of waste from a coal burning power plant burst and flooded the town. The waste was just being piled up and piled up in a landfill. No one outside of the town housing the pool of toxins asked what was happening with the waste from the power plant. Out of sight out of mind. But when the retaining wall burst, and the town was swimming in liquid waste, everyone began to see a glimpse of big coals dirty secret.
It seems every step in the process of burning coal; from ground removal to burning it contains an unseen cost.
The most popular way to remove coal these days is known as mountaintop removal mining, where explosives are used to destroy mountaintops to remove the coal. The external unseen cost of this is a devastation of the landscape. On one level the landscape loses its beauty. But on another level without the proper landscape rains now create floods and mud slides, devastating homes and communities.
When the coal is shipped by rail car there is a dust of coal blown in the air which is unsafe to breath. And lastly when the coal is burned the waste was usually blown out of the smoke stacks into the air, polluting the air and lungs of the community. New technology and Federal laws have made it possible to grab some of the pollution before it is sent into the atmosphere. The new question that has not been asked is what to do and what is being done with the new pollution. A small town in Tennessee found out the hard way.
The flood rocked a small town in Tennessee in 2008 a few days before Christmas. A coal burning power plant turned against the town it helped create. While the power plant once supplied jobs and careers allowing a whole town to build up and flourish around it, now it polluted over 300 acres of land, contaminating the river that provides drinking water to the community.
Since the Federal Government has been promising to create regulations since 2000 (fly ash) but has not, and since state regulation is usually less aggressive than federal, power plants have been pretty much left on their own to store or dispose of the fly ash as they see fit. Many have chosen to mix the dry fly ash with water and store them in large walled in landfills. A toxic sludge pool, if you will. There are more than 1,300 of these toxic pools across the US. The dams holding up the pools are deemed a “high hazard” at 44 of the 1,300 locations, by the EPA. And 12 of the 44 most hazardous dams are located in North Carilina. These toxic pools are less regulated than household trash and while a 2007 EPA report learned that many of the pools of waste are contaminating groundwater and wells they have failed to act.
They are called toxic sludge pools because last I checked mercury, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, and lead are toxic, cancer causing, birth defect producing substances. In fact some of the toxic sludge pools are known to contain radioactive elements.
Yet when the wall broke at the Tennessee power plant that held back a 60 foot pool of around a billion gallons of toxic sludge (40 times more pollution than what was unleashed from the Exxon Valdez spill), the Federal government was still classifying the toxic sludge as non hazardous material. It makes perfect sense, if you live in the twilight zone. Which is where our Federal Government is living these days, and it’s the only way to explain how mercury is toxic and hazardous ordinarily, yet when you mix it with water and other toxic chemicals and rename it sludge, it’s not hazardous. You get it right?
You see by creating a new name the Federal Government can say the item with a new name is safe until it’s tested to find out otherwise. Take carbon monoxide. Its deadly when you lock yourself in the garage and have your car running, yet when you rename it and spray it on beef (which is done in the USA) it’s perfectly safe (until tested), as I learned watching the FDA answering questions on capitol hill a few years back.
Thanks once again to the interests of the powerful in this country and their army of lobbyists we are now able to buy beef sprayed with poison that looks damn fresh even when it isn’t,, and we can officially call mercury non hazardous. These powerful forces have been able to stop the federal government from regulating anything that can cut into company profits. That could explain why the government body that regulates the environment, the EPA, has been on record since the 1980’s saying they have to create guidelines on how to store and dispose of toxic sludge while they have been doing nothing.
Even after a spill like this no one is held accountable. All the members of the board of the TVA still have their jobs, all the regulatory workers at the EPA still have their jobs, and no one has been publicly tarred and feathered. The only action taken has been from the EPA, who now says that by December they will issue their findings on whether to officially label hazardous waste uhh, a hazardous waste or not. I just hope it will be December of this year.
It seems once again, when looking for who is at fault, all signs point to Washington D.C. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) owns the power plant that had the spill. The TVA is a part public part private company. (We see where that got us with Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac) The TVA boasts the title of the nation’s largest public utility. The board of directors that runs the company is chosen by the President of the United States. Our nation has a history choosing regulators who do not believe in regulation, i.e. appointing a coal executive to regulate air pollution, appointing a chemical company executive who has previously dumped toxic waste into rivers, to become a water regulator, or hiring Wall Street executives who helped crash the system to work at the Treasury Department to help fix the crash.
And while Reports are coming out showing that the retaining wall holding up the sludge pool had many problems in the past that were temporarily fixed, and fixed the cheapest way, or completely ignored , and how the management at the TVA really dropped the ball, it all seems part of a larger problem, that the drive for profits in all big business has lead to corners being cut with little concern for any future repercussions.
The fact that a large corporation cut corners is no surprise but it seems to becoming part of the normal business model. The economic crash we saw on Wall Street was driven by large corporations who were trying to make a quick dollar today while not thinking about or not caring about future consequences of things like making home loans to large numbers of people who have no job and no money in the bank. Wall Street cut corners for the quick buck while someone else was left holding the bag. Health insurance companies deny expensive operations to save money. But the question regarding the Tennessee coal sludge spill, the Wall Street crash, and the Health insurance industry is; where were the federal watch dogs? I think we know.
We all know that in capitalism greed will run wild if not put in check by Government. I think most people will agree that government has a role to play as far as watching over industry to make sure their search for profits does not leave a wake of destruction in its path. But once again it seems the Federal Government has not been playing that role, and does not look like they will be playing it any time soon. For the past hundred years (at least) people have been crying out that our Congress has been bought off to serve the interests of big industry at the expense of everyone.
And right now the town of Kingston Tennessee is worrying about the water they use to drink and shower with (that has been causing rashes and burning), the quality of the air they are breathing (which is causing lung ailments), and the water quality where the fish they eat live.(it might takes years for the chemicals in the water to work its way into the larger fish that humans eat. From the nation’s website,
“Meanwhile, a recent survey by Tennessee's state health department said that one third of the residents living near the spill are reporting breathing problems. Some residents have complained of a gray film in their tap water and of a burning sensation on their skin and in their eyes after taking a shower.”
One mother took her asthmatic child to the hospital and was told the toxins are on the ground all over town and you probably tracked toxic dust into your house, until the house is cleaned you should not take your son back there. The TVA gave the mother a hotel room. But the hotel was also housing workers from the cleanup who were tracking toxic dust into the hotel. Once again the TVA stepped up to help by buying the mother and child a home outside of town. But once again, not thinking things through, the house was upwind of the spill, and frequent winds carried toxic particles back into the child’s lungs.
Besides the 1.2 billion dollar estimated costs of cleaning up the toxic spill the TVA has also donated 43 million dollars to the town of Kingston, I suppose as some sort of apology. Yet the move looks disingenuous when word got out that a board would be set up to decide how the money would be spent, where half the board members used to sit on TVA’s board.
Non profit environment groups have also got involved. One environmental organization United Mountain Defense has raised money so they could come to Kingston to test for levels of toxins in people as well as in the environment. In one instance a few volunteers for the United Mountain Defense organization were detained by police for legally installing machines to test for air quality. Greenpeace began calling for a criminal investigation into the spill pretty much right after it occurred. A nonprofit, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is suing the TVA under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, for 165 million dollars, making up one of at least four lawsuits against the TVA. And the Sierra club has a movement building to move beyond coal as a form of energy. They recognize the hazards coal has on communities that dig for coal, that have coal shipped through them, that burn coal, and that store coal power plant waste, and they see the great potential green energy has to offer. Their four point plan from their website aims to;
slow and stop the construction of new coal burning power plants
Dramatically accelerate the retirement and/or replacement of existing plants
Reduce coal mining production a little each year, stop mountaintop removal, prevent new mining
Slow and end the use of high carbon fuels in the US
As for the question why wasn’t this a bigger news story considering it was over 40 times larger of a spill than the Exxon Valdez, one writer summed it up best,
“Primarily because it occurred in rural eastern Kentucky — and few people outside of those who live there really care about what happens to the land and people of Appalachia. If the impoundment failure had happened in California or New York, it would have been front page news in The New York Times and the Washington Post. Can you imagine emergency rooms in Los Angeles being shut down because of a lack of clean water? Instead, it was deemed “not really that important” by most of the mainstream media. When wildfires consume beautiful homes in the hills of California, it headlines the CBS evening news. But when creeks are fouled and thousands of people go without water for weeks in Appalachia, somehow it’s not considered “newsworthy.”
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