The Three-Mile Island of coal

January 16, 2009

Mike, a long-time resident of Tennessee, provides the background to December's devastating coal-ash spill.

A COAL-ASH containment pond ruptured in Harriman Tenn., between Nashville and Knoxville, in late December, flooding the surrounding area with over a billion gallons of toxic sludge. The spill covered 300 acres of land and measured up to six feet deep, making many local homes uninhabitable.

The sludge poured into tributaries of the Tennessee River, which supplies drinking water to millions of people downstream in Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. The volume of waste released was over 80 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill.

The containment pond was a waste-storage area for a plant run by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation that owns and manages numerous coal, hydro and nuclear power plants in the Southeast. According to the New York Times:

In a single year, [this] coal-fired electric plant deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic materials in a holding pond that failed...according to a 2007 inventory filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The inventory...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...contained many decades' worth of these deposits."

The spill from a coal-ash containment pond spread over 300 acres of land, and poured into streams and rivers
The spill from a coal-ash containment pond spread over 300 acres of land, and poured into streams and rivers

Since the spill, independent tests show dangerous levels of numerous contaminants in river water, exceeding drinking-water standards by as much as 300 times. While no one is drinking untreated river water, most local residents rely on well water, and due to shallow wells and porous geology, the toxins in the river could easily spread into the aquifers that people rely on.

Within days, residents reported "vomiting for more than 12 hours after drinking the water"--which is a common symptom of arsenic or heavy metal poisoning. In addition, there is the danger that the ash from the spill could dry, become airborne and be inhaled.

The impact on wildlife was immediate. Huge quantities of dead fish floated down the river, mixed with the coal ash. Many of the contaminants in the coal sludge bio-accumulate as they move up the food chain--which means that carnivorous birds and mammals could receive significantly higher exposure than the fish that they are eating. In the past, this has been a damaging long-term effect of pollution of this type.

BESIDES THE environmental and human health impact, this Tennessee disaster is important for two more reasons.

First, the spill exemplifies the problems of lax regulation and enforcement of environmental standards. The containment pond that failed was filled significantly above normal levels, and past inspections showed it to be structurally weak. In fact, this same pond failed inspection at least twice in the past six years, although for much smaller breaches. The TVA had considered draining the waste from this location and moving it to a more modern and safer dry disposal site, but balked at the $25 million cost.

Despite the toxins present in coal ash, it isn't regulated as a toxic waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, fossil fuel combustion wastes "are categorized by EPA as a 'special waste' and have been exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations."

This practice has come up for congressional debate numerous times, but has never gotten very far, mostly because of protests from lobbyists representing the coal industry.

Coal plants produce 129 million tons of post-combustion byproducts--or fly ash--a year, making it the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S., just behind municipal solid waste.

The proper disposal of this waste would come at a significant cost to plant operators, and to the coal and power industries in general. And Tennessee, like many other states, has a "no more stringent" law--meaning that the environmental regulations the state requires can't be stronger than these inadequate federal regulations.

In response, to this crisis, the TVA and EPA have hardly been forthcoming with information.

Initially, the EPA released complete results from just two sample sites--both upstream from the spill and therefore obviously uncontaminated. These tests were promptly used to reassure the public. More complete results trickled out over a period of weeks, in spite of the fact that the tests can be run and the results processed in well under 24 hours.

The TVA has repeatedly claimed that everything is essentially fine, despite the toxic material that was released into the environment and the water system.

Another problem is that the TVA issued a "boil order" for water users immediately following the spill, although boiling of the drinking water as recommended would not remove most of the contaminants from the water, and could instead increase their concentration.

To make matters worse, the workers involved in the cleanup weren't given proper safety equipment or information about the waste. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classifies the ash as a hazardous substance and carcinogen, and requires that workers wear the proper safety equipment, including a respirator.

All of these efforts put public relations and hollow reassurances above any real information or concern for public safety. "They think that the public is stupid, that they can't put two and two together," summarized Sandy Gupton, a registered nurse and local resident.

The fact that TVA ignored known safety problems, lied to the public, withheld crucial information and, at every step, put profits first may surprise readers who associate it with its New Deal heritage. Like many other government agencies, however, the TVA has been deeply changed by neoliberalism.

In the late 1980s, TVA began a campaign of cost-cutting and layoffs in a quest to compete with the now-privatized and deregulated electric industry. Although it is still government-owned and retains some pseudo-governmental powers, it no longer receives any government funding, and relies entirely on its power sales for revenue. It effectively competes with private suppliers by underselling them, relying on exactly this kind of cost-cutting to do so.

THERE IS another reason to pay close attention to this disaster. It is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the production and use of coal--at a time when "clean coal" propaganda is increasingly making headway, and when this technology is poised to receive significant support from Obama.

"Clean coal" typically referrers to carbon sequestration, which is expensive and impractical compared with wind, solar, hydro and most other energy sources.

Essentially, the process involves pumping the carbon dioxide created by burning coal into underground storage areas, such as depleted oilfields. Besides the set-up and maintenance costs, the energy required to sequester the carbon would take as much as 40 percent of the energy from burning the coal.

Finally, "clean coal" technology is still in the research and development phase, and may take years or decades to be installed in the first plants--while solar and wind are being used already, and have been for decades.

But as the Tennessee disaster makes clear, air emissions are only part of the problem of using coal.

"Clean coal" offers no solution to this "fly ash" waste, or the pollution produced during the mining process. It offers no solution to the "mountaintop removal" coal mining that is increasingly widespread. It does not address the health and safety risks that continue to plague underground coal mining. And since the carbon sequestration process will require significantly more coal to produce the same amount of electricity, the mining and solid waste problems will become even more damaging.

While the disaster and its impact is fading from the media, there will likely be a long-term political impact. As one person involved in the cleanup summarized it, "This could be the Three-Mile Island of coal."

First, the lawsuits, investigations and hearings have not yet begun, and these could drag on for years. High-profile lawyers are advising many local residents not to settle with the TVA prematurely, and are planning class-action lawsuits. The TVA's status as a "federally owned corporation" means that governmental investigations into this disaster are inevitable, including congressional hearings.

Second, the conditions that gave rise to the coal sludge spill aren't unique to Tennessee. In 2007, the EPA identified 63 sites in 26 states where water has been contaminated by heavy metals from coal ash storage, and environmental advocates have petitioned to have at least 17 additional sites included on the list.

Many of these sites are actually much more dangerous than the Tennessee site that failed--in some cases, they are constructed mainly of sand and gravel, allowing contaminated water to flow through freely.

Even among "relatively new" coal ash storage sites, less than 45 percent use the safest method of lined, dry landfills. A large majority of ash is still stored in wet ponds like the one that failed, and these are almost always located next to large water sources to allow for filling and draining.

The EPA has been "studying" the issue of coal ash waste for over 28 years, without ever deciding on any standards for permanent safe disposal, or even deciding if such standards are needed.

To prevent these types of disasters in the future, we will need to establish and enforce adequate regulations for coal ash disposal, establish public ownership and control over the TVA and all other power utilities, and ultimately phase out the use of coal and other non-renewable power sources.

This can only be achieved by a broader movement for social justice and environmental sustainability--because the status quo is too profitable to those in power for a change to be made in any other way. Keeping the Tennessee disaster in the spotlight can only help in that effort.

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