Tennessee families enjoy free coal byproducts
Grateful residents of Harriman, Tennessee got an early Christmas gift as their homes were literally flooded with byproduct from clean, affordable fuel that will help them keep warm through the winter months. The Tennessee Valley Authority generously provided the coal ash free of charge, along with gallons and gallons of delicious, refreshing water. There are few things more important for human survival than water and fuel for heat, but not everyone in Harriman appreciated the gesture:
What may be the nation’s largest spill of coal ash lay thick and largely untouched over hundreds of acres of land and waterways Wednesday after a dam broke this week, as officials and environmentalists argued over its potential toxicity. Holly Schean, a waitress whose home, which she shared with her parents, was swept off its foundation when millions of cubic yards of ash breached a retaining wall early Monday morning, said, “They’re giving their apologies, which don’t mean very much.”I think Ms. Schean is correct in saying that she doesn't need an apology. What she needs is a huge warehouse to store all of her good luck! Coal ash comes from coal, which is America's most abundant source of clean energy. Tens of millions of dollars worth of coal were burned to produce all that ash, and Ms. Schean got a couple of million cubic yards of it for free. It's like winning the lottery without even buying a ticket!
The T.V.A., Ms. Schean said, has not yet declared the house uninhabitable. But, she said: “I don’t need your apologies. I need information.”
Federal officials assured the public that the coal ash is harmless, but naturally the gravel eating tree-huggers and the pointy-headed scientists have a different opinion:
Despite numerous reports from recreational anglers and television news video of a large fish kill downstream of the spill, Mr. Francis said the T.V.A.’s environmental team had not encountered any dead fish. On Swan Pond Road, home to the residences nearest the plant, a group of environmental advocates went door to door telling residents that boiling their water, as officials had suggested, would not remove heavy metals.You just knew that was coming, didn't you? The call for regulation. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone that the whole reason coal is so affordable is that businesses and entrepreneurs are free to burn and mine coal without too much interference from the government. Lately, the calls for regulation have grown to a hysterical crescendo:
Even as the authority played down the risks, the spill reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Similar ponds and mounds of ash exist at hundreds of coal plants around the nation. a draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.
Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.
The contents of coal ash can vary widely depending on the source, but one study found that the mean concentrations of lead, chromium, nickel and arsenic are three to five times higher in the Appalachian coal that is mined near Kingston than in Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.
United States coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year, the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste. That is enough to fill more than a million railroad coal cars, according to the National Research Council. Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps.
Environmentalists pointed to the accident as proof of their long-held assertion that there is no such thing as “clean coal,” noting two factors that may have contributed to the scale of the disaster. First, as coal plants have gotten better at controlling air pollution, the toxic substances that would have been spewed into the air have been shifted to solid byproducts like fly ash, and the production of such postcombustion waste, as it is called, has increased sharply.
Stephen A. Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was “mind-boggling” that officials had not warned nearby residents of the dangers.Fortunately, President Clinton resisted environmentalists' calls for the creation of a Soviet-style police state to oversee the coal industry. And President Bush, whose lax regulation of the coal mining has been a smashing success, has followed a similar policy with regard to coal burning:
“The fact that they have not warned people, I think, is disastrous and potentially harmful to the residents,” Mr. Smith said. “There are people walking around, checking it out.”
He and other environmentalists warned that another danger would arise when the muck dried out and became airborne and breathable.
Environmental groups have long pressed for coal ash to be buried in lined landfills to prevent the leaching of metals into the soil and groundwater, a recommendation borne out by the 2006 E.P.A. report. An above-ground embankment like the one at Kingston was not an appropriate storage site for fly ash, said Thomas J. FitzGerald, the director of nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council and an expert in coal waste.
“I find it difficult to comprehend that the State of Tennessee would have approved that as a permanent disposal site,” Mr. FitzGerald said.
In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter federal controls of coal ash, but backed away in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials. At the time, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of power utilities, estimated that the industry would have to spend up to $5 billion in additional cleanup costs if the substance were declared hazardous. Since then, environmentalists have urged tighter federal standards, and the E.P.A. is reconsidering its decision not to classify the waste as hazardous.Naturally, the Bush administration is pursuing the containment and cleanup of the coal ash with the same vigor and efficiency that they brought to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:
A morning flight over the disaster area showed some cleanup activity along a road and the railroad tracks that take coal to the facility, both heaped in sludge, but no evidence of promised skimmers or barricades on the water to prevent the ash from sliding downstream. The breach occurred when an earthen dike, the only thing separating millions of cubic yards of ash from the river, gave way, releasing a glossy sea of muck, four to six feet thick, dotted with icebergs of ash across the landscape. Where the Clinch River joined the Tennessee, a clear demarcation wasvisible between the soiled waters of the former and the clear brown broth of the latter.So in the end, residents of Harriman, Tennessee got free water and coal ash, and the Bush administration went to the trouble of dumping some rocks into the river. And incredibly, some eggheads and backpackers managed to twist these events into some kind of catastrophe so that they could justify imposing their socialist regulations on the businessmen who provide us with the electricity to heat our homes and cook our food.
By afternoon, dump trucks were depositing rock into the river in a race to blockade it before an impending rainstorm washed more ash downstream.
NOTE: I've gotten a lot of complaints about this report in email, and some have accused me of unethical behavior. For the record, I was not influenced in any by this development.
(cross posted at appletree)