Dark Days For King Coal


Fly ash spill near graveyard. Kingston, TN. Image credit:Lane Boldman

There is no such thing as clean coal. It is filthy, it is destructive when mined, it is poisonous when burned and it contaminates ground water when the coal ash is land-filled or spilled. And more and more lately it's also turning out to be a bad investment. Coal stories over the past month make it clear: The future's not looking so bright. Witness these events -- the good, the bad, and the ugly:
Home crushed by fly ash spill. Kingston, TN. Image credit:Lyndsay Moseley

Good Decisions:
Dynegy, Inc. announced on January 2 that it is pulling out of its joint venture with LS Power and abandoning five of its seven proposed coal-fired power plants. Without its larger partner, LS Power will have a very difficult time developing and financing the proposed plants -- in fact, it has already dropped plans for its Elk Run coal plant in Waterloo, Iowa. (Financing for such endeavors is getting harder to obtain, if not entirely going away, some say.)

The now-abandoned proposed sites are in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Iowa and Arkansas, and would have spewed an estimated 30 million tons of global warming pollution into the air each year making them some of the single largest sources of such pollution in the U.S.

We at the Sierra Club are taking some credit for being the folks in the white hats here. In February 2008, we launched the national Clean Up Dynegy campaign to urge the Houston-based company to clean up its act. Tactics included call-in events in 20 states, which generated thousands of telephone calls to Dynegy headquarters, pressuring the company to shift its investments away from coal and into cleaner, smarter energy solutions. The Dynegy decision came at least in part due to this pressure. Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign Director, told me, "Dynegy had been the largest developer of new coal-fired power plants in the country, and it seems like the company has recognized our efforts to move to a clean energy future. We applaud them for taking this major step forward."

Bad Actors
In December, a federal judge rejected Duke Energy's attempts to build its new Cliffside coal-fired power plant in North Carolina without modern mercury and other pollution controls. (And this from a company led by a guy who considers himself the coal industry leader in the green game). Now Duke must submit this plan for a state process to review its mercury emissions.

As the first coal plant sent back to drawing board after the D.C. circuit court rejected lax Bush administration mercury rules earlier this year, this case sets a precedent. From an excellent North Carolina Business Journal article on the case.

The utility, a unit of Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp., got an air-quality permit from the state in January without that kind of review. The Environmental Protection Agency had for some time said plants such as Cliffside did not have to perform such reviews for a state permit.
In February, the federal courts struck down the EPA ruling as contrary to the law's intent. Duke had received its air permit just weeks before.

And of course, Duke Energy is fighting against cleaning up their plants by appealing this case. But for now, we are thrilled with the decision because it is a statement for cleaning up dirty coal-fired power plants.

Ugly Spills
If a spill like this one happened in the Hudson, Potomac, or Mississippi, you'd see a jillion TV talking heads going on about it. But it happened on a Tennessee river with no name recognition, and affected people with little political power, so you might have missed it.

On December 22, a retention pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-fired steam plant in Kingston burst open, spilling one billion gallons of coal ash sludge and contaminated water -- into the Clinch and Emory rivers. If a picture's worth a thousand words, then this video, posted to the Huffington Post by Sandra Diaz, national field director for Appalachian Voices, is worth a million words. Shot four days after the spill, it shows not only the extensive damage, but also how little is being done by TVA to clean it up.

What's not visible to the eye, of course, are the contaminants in the sludge, which went into two rivers that supply the Tennessee River, which is a water source for Chattanooga and other communities. Scientists working in coordination with Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance's Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Program took samples in the Emory River and found concentrations of eight toxic chemicals ranging from twice to 300 times higher than drinking water limits. Those numbers come from scientists with Appalachian State University who conducted the tests.

"Although these results are preliminary, we want to release them because of the public health concern and because we believe the TVA and EPA aren't being candid," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

We have Sierra Club members, staffers and volunteers living in this area and who grew up in that area, and we've also had some of our staff visit the spill site. The feedback we're getting from the people there is heart-breaking -- some have already filed suit -- and disconcerting as far as efforts by TVA to let folks know it's a dangerous area. From one of our Sierra Club leaders, Lane Boldman.

I saw no signs with any warnings whatsoever, and I went to several areas. I saw no full fences- There were areas that had barrier tape strung up at driveways and roads to block access by car, so it was not easy to drive to any of the sites, and there were also TVA security patrols watching the areas at strategic entrances where the spill was the worst. But if someone wanted to it would not be hard to get to some of the spill areas. It seemed like the main deterrents were the TVA patrol cars. But I saw nothing posted that listed a hazard.

The lesson? Next time you hear some PR spin about an imaginary fuel called "clean" coal" ask them about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who struggle to breathe because of air pollution from coal burning, or the latest Americans whose homes have been destroyed or flooded by coal sludge.

A bit more fly ash coverage.
Oops...There's Fly-Ash In The Clean Coal Ointment
There Is No Such Thing As Clean Coal.
Concrete: Can it be Green?

Tags: Coal | Electricity | Tennessee

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