Coal: Cleanup, Costs, and Consequences in Tennessee

spill A billion gallons of sludge.

A possible $800 million price tag for the cleanup.

A lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority.

So far in Tennessee, this is just some of the fallout from the 300-acre Kingston Steam Plant coal ash spill in December as concerns over heavy metal pollution and health effects from the accident are increasing. The environmental disaster has fast become a public relations one for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), too, as grassroots and netroots groups report evidence of arsenic and other toxins in the area's water.

While TVA has already spent $31 million to clear away some of the coal ash waste, President and CEO Tom Kilgore recently estimated total cleanup costs - which do not include long-term remediation - between $525 and $825 million.

The health costs for Roane County residents, though, may be higher, and one group has filed a lawsuit:

 "The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee on behalf of 109 citizens in Roane County and the surrounding area. It claims the TVA had ongoing problems with containing its waste at the Kingston plant, dating back to 1984.

The suit claims the company should be responsible for the toxic materials contained in the coal sludge, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium and thallium, which are hazardous to human health." - Sustainable Business

All these elements - the spill itself, the cost of cleaning it up, the legal action of residents who live near it - have lit up the fight over coal-based energy and destructive coal mining practices, environmental issues often shadowed by flashier news about melting ice shelves and climate change-induced natural disasters. In the two months since the Kingston spill, the brand-new Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network (TCASN) has joined well-established environmental groups in demanding coal ash regulation.

According to the Kentucky Sierra Club's Dave Cooper, who reported on clean-up efforts after visiting the area early this year,

"The EPA has found levels of arsenic in the Emory River downstream of the TVA spill at 150 times the safe level for drinking water. Independent tests have found levels up to 300 times the EPA standard for drinking water (10 parts per billion). Water samples were also found to contain elevated levels of lead, thallium, barium, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and nickel. The synergistic effect on human health from exposure to low levels of multiple heavy metals cannot be determined.

Arsenic kills people by disrupting the digestive system. . . . Chronic low-level arsenic poisoning may also cause lung, skin, kidney and bladder cancer." - Sierra Club: The Cumberland (pdf)

Those numbers and possible side effects are alarming all by themselves, but dangerous respiratory issues may lie ahead, too:

"The biggest threat by far is that the wet ash will dry to dust and release breathable particles," says coal ash expert Tom FitzGerald, director of Kentucky Resources Council. The prospect of an emergency deepened on January 28, when Duke University scientists reported that exposure to radium- and arsenic-containing particulates could have severe health implications.

"The levels of radioactivity we measured in the ash are almost twice the level the EPA reports for typical coal ash," says Duke geochemistry professor Avner Vengosh, who added that the difference results from the type of coal that's burned. "What we know is that right now the ash is wet. But if it is allowed to dry and become a dust, it will contain particles and could become a public health hazard." In that situation, Vengosh says, living near the ash dust "would be the equivalent of living in a house containing radon." - The Nation

A thick blanket of coal ash spread out over several hundred acres obviously impacts the people who live in that region, first and foremost. But the Kingston spill, and its emergence as an anti-coal symbol, also carries much broader implications for coal-based energy in the United States.

First, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) responded to the disaster by sponsoring H.R. 493, a bill that would federally regulate coal ash containment.

Second, third, and fourth, as noted by Grist's Kate Sheppard, environmentalists and activists hope the current attention on the Kingsport disaster will have far-reaching implications on the long-term goals of eliminating destructive Appalachian mountaintop-removal mining, including greenhouse-gas regulation under the Clean Air Act for the first time, and keeping new coal-fired power plants from being built. And those steps are put of an even larger effort, the eventual elimination of coal as an energy source.

The American energy picture is a sprawling, complicated issue, and affordability and availability of power is always part of the equation:

"Moreover, getting more and more of our energy from squeaky-clean sources like wind, solar and biomass sounds like a great idea, but whether renewables can keep the lights on and our iPods charged remains an open question." - New York Times

Unquestionably, though, coal waste regulation and safety should take an enormous leap forward in the meantime.

Related Reading:
'Clean Coal' Disaster 100x Worse than Valdez
Coal Fly Ash More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste

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  • Posted on March 5, 2009. Listed in:

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