Clean coal? Not in Tennessee


It’s starting to look like the words “clean coal” should come with built-in scare quotes. This Christmas, while the clean-coal shills were pushing the boundaries of self-parody with cartoons featuring carol-singing lumps of coal, a tidal wave of toxic coal sludge burst through a retention wall in eastern Tennessee. At first, officials from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the site, said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of liquid coal ash had spilled out; now, following an aerial survey, they’ve more than tripled their original estimate, saying that 5.4 million cubic yards of slurry had been spilled.

Even when you’ve seen the videos, it’s difficult to get a handle on the scale of such a catastrophe. The Tennessee coal-ash spill has already far outstripped the ExxonValdez disaster, belching out enough toxic goo to cover 3,000 acres a foot deep. As Hilzoy points out, coal-ash is pretty nasty stuff: more radioactive than nuclear waste, and spiked with carcinogens, heavy metals and neurotoxins like arsenic, lead and mercury. To make matters worse, the Appalachian coal mined near the site is believed to be between three and five times more toxic than Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.

That’s bad news for local residents - especially the dozens whose homes and property were inundated by the viscous filth. Adding insult to injury, the preliminary clean-up work and toxicity monitoring is being done by - you guessed it - the Tennessee Valley Authority itself. “Having TVA do all the testing is kind of like having the criminal suspects on 'CSI' do the fingerprinting for themselves,” Rick Hind, the toxic legislative director for Greenpeace, told the Washington Post.

He might be right. So far, the TVA’s officials have denied that the spill has affected local fish stocks, despite TV footage showing countless dead fish downstream of the spill. They’ve been telling residents that their water is safe as long as it’s boiled - prompting local greens to go door-to-door reminding people that boiling water doesn’t remove heavy-metal contaminants. And according to some reports, they’ve also been remarkably slow in warning residents to avoid the area and to avoid coming into contact with the sludge.

The TVA’s flimflammery is a timely reminder that for all the coal industry’s clean-coal rhetoric, it remains a filthy industry more concerned with greenwashing than with cleaning up its act. Fortunately, it’ll take more than a few lumps of animated anthracite to make this PR problem go away.

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