Firing fossils: messy, expensive, and too often deadly

Kingston coal ash storage on the banks of the Emory River.(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 10/11/2013)

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One of the highlights of a week-long conference I recently attended in Chattanooga, Tenn. was a bus trip a few miles north, to the Kingston Fossil Plant, one of 11 coal-fired electricity generating plants owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The plant burns coal to turn water into steam to drive generators to provide electricity to about 540,000 homes.

It also was the site, in the early morning of December 22, 2008, of a massive release of coal ash into nearby rivers and a lake. Without warning – at least without warning considered by plant managers, an 84-acre pile of ash broke loose to befoul the waters below – and above – the plant. The ash mass hit the Emory River with such force the downstream flow could not immediately absorb it, so the ash, and the river it rode, flowed backward several miles, and created “ashbergs” in the watercourse.

On the bus ride north from Chattanooga, a representative of the United Mine Workers told us the importance of coal as fuel to generate electricity and jobs, the latter the oft-proclaimed grail of many politicians who hope we will vote their continued employment at least one more time before we discover we have been hoodwinked into destroying, or at least diminishing, this whirling glob of mud and rock we call home.

Across the bus aisle, a member of Waterkeepers Inc. offered a different view. With passion at times bordering on emotional display, she spoke of grandparents living alongside the river, and of the good fortune that the waste pile broke loose at 1 a.m., while residents were abed, rather than 1 p.m. when they might have been enjoying a day on the river.

In the intervening five years, the federal corporation known as the Tennessee Valley Authority has dredged up much of the blackened river bottom, bought out most of the former riverside residents and an adjacent multi-hundred acre farm – the latter to use as a source of clay that would help turn the giant coal ash scar into a recreation area TVA hopes will erase from the collective memory of future generations the destruction that befell their grandparents’ homes that winter night.

The eventual cost of the cleanup, TVA estimates, will be $1.1 billion, which the company’s customers will pay over 15 years.

The mess, and the expense, is reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in 1989 and blanketed the Alaskan coast in arctic crude oil, killing wildlife by the thousands, if not millions – and oil still remains. Or the BP/Deep Water Horizon blowout that killed 11 workers and spread billions of barrels of oil on beaches from Texas to Florida. Or the so-called “Dilbit Disaster” that spilled more than a million gallons of Canadian tar sand oil, of the type planned for the Keystone XL pipeline, into the Kalamazoo River and the homes of more than 150 families along its banks. Or the estimated 7,000 barrels of similar tar sand oil spilled into a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas this past spring.

I am forced by honesty to acknowledge that some of the electricity generated by the Kingston Fossil Plant was stored in the tablet-computer with which I outlined this report. Still more, from similar plants nearer my Pennsylvania home, power the computer on my desk and the considerable equipment used to produce the newspaper which carries these words.

One thing is certain about our continued burning of long-dead carbon-based life forms. Accidents occurring along the way are messy, expensive to clean, and extremely hazardous to human and other life. One should wonder what we might have accomplished had we put the billions spent on fossil fuel cleanups to work on cleaner alternatives.

After all, if a wind-powered generator falls down, it does not destroy rivers and beaches and homes of thousands of people who live and work near them.

2 thoughts on “Firing fossils: messy, expensive, and too often deadly”

  1. “I am forced by honesty to acknowledge that some of the electricity generated by the Kingston Fossil Plant was stored in the tablet-computer with which I outlined this report.” — But this revelation and your honesty (I would hope) lessens its impact. Yes, we all flew and drove and burned fossil fuels to get to Chattanooga, but the lessons we learned there will (hopefully) help readers to understand their choices and inspire us to make better ones.

  2. But that’s my point. Making the choice is tough. I need the power. I want the power. But there has to be a better way. Electric vehicles are not “Zero Emission,” they merely emit remotely. That’s a good thing for Washington DC traffic jams, not so good for residents downstream of the Kingston plant. Is wind the panacea? I doubt it very much, but choosing coal over wind because wind isn’t enough isn’t the answer, either.

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