Coal ash for a Christmas gift in Tennessee

The clean coal debate just got a new twist, after a dam holding an ashy sludge breaks in Appalachia.
The clean coal debate just got a new twist, after a dam holding an ashy sludge breaks in Appalachia.

On the Monday before Christmas a dam broke at an eastern Tennessee coal-fired power plant, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into nearby valleys and waterways. The sludge, a byproduct of coal burning, destroyed 15 houses and forced evacuations. It could contaminate drinking water in the area and release airborne toxics as the ash dries. From the New York Times:

Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. But with no official word on the dangers of the sludge in Tennessee, displaced residents spent Christmas Eve worried about their health and their property, and wondering what to do.

The breach of an earthen dike released 50 times more mass than the Exxon Valdez, according to one environmental journalist's calculation. But she was dealing with faulty information — on Friday the Tennessee Valley Authority said the spill was more than three times larger than originally estimated.

Right now I'm visiting family in southern Indiana hill country, and the spill hasn't gotten any more media coverage here than it has in the Northwest. The lack of attention is a bit mind-boggling, but it maybe shouldn't be. Those who will have their health threatened by this disaster have at least three things working against them.

First, they live in Appalachia, where the coal industry has a long history of threatening public health without scrutiny. The area has no national media heavyweights, and its mountains lack the rocky grandeur that draws defenders to the ranges of the West.

Second, the spill occurred just before Christmas.

Third, the spill happened under the watch of the Bush Environmental Protection Agency. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently produced a thorough and damning report on administrator Stephen Johnson's leadership at the EPA. Let's hope the agency can catch up from the slow start the Times reports:

Water sampled several miles downstream from the spill was safe to drink, but its iron and manganese content exceeded the secondary drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, which govern taste and odor but not potential health effects, Mr. Moulton said.

Neither the authority nor the E.P.A. has released the results of tests of soil or the ash itself. Authority officials have said that the ash is not harmful, and the authority has not warned residents of potential dangers, though federal studies show that coal ash can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and carcinogens.

The Tennessee spill could shake up the coal debate as the Obama administration introduces its national energy plan. Most of the questions surrounding clean coal hinge on whether smokestack emissions can be made less harmful. Drilling, blasting, and other methods of extracting coal from the land aren't really a part of the discussions. And smokestack emissions aren't the only potentially lethal byproduct, as we've been learning.


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