December was never an easy month for coal. The Italian tradition of leaving a lump in the stockings of “naughty” children is an unfortunate association for a material some believe could lead the U.S. to energy bliss. But this December has been particularly tough for the coal industry.
First, a poorly conceived campaign by the coal industry’s trade group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, earlier this month had animated lumps of coal singing Christmas carols, drawing a solid flogging on the Internet. Of particular offense to some was the reworking of “Silent Night” into “Clean Coal Night,” which the trade group yanked before things could really get out of hand. [“Christ the savior is born” was reworked into “Plenty of coal for years to come.”]
There’s some confusion over the catastrophe and part of that stems from the PR efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns to Kingston Fossil Plant near Knoxville where a dam containing enough wet coal ash to flood 3,000 acres gave way for unknown reasons.
At first, the TVA said 1.7M cubic yards of the toxic ash (which looks like sludge, but is called “ash”) spilled. A few days later, the TVA said it’s more like 5.4M. Basically, the spill included billions of gallons of wet ash which coated an area 48 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
But how much of the sludge spilled isn’t as important to the public as how harmful it could be to the area. The spill clogged the Emory River sparking a fish kill and elevated levels of lead, thallium, arsenic and other toxins, although the TVA insists the ash is not toxic. “You’re not going to be endangered by touching the ash material. You’d have to eat it. You have to get it in your body,” said Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for the TVA. That reassurance is coupled with the inevitability that the sludge will dry out and turn to dust, thus the TVA’s suggestion that “people avoid activities that generate dust.” Right.
Whether it’s dangerous or not the episode is a damaging blow for proponents of coal technology as a relatively harmless and bountiful method of power generation in the U.S. Although the Tennessee accident is being painted as a freak occurrence, the aerial shots of millions of gallons of sludge creeping into the Emory River and area neighborhoods will likely be used against the rising tide of support for “clean coal,” of which the TVA is the largest generating utility in the country.