Here’s an issue that has not gotten nearly enough press: toxic sludge left over from coal polluting our water and soil. I read about this in an article in The Nation from last week.
We heard throughout the last presidential campaign the term, “clean coal,” and its, “clean coal technology” comrade, but we didn’t hear about the, “toxic sludge,” or the large pools of water and coal remnants that are held in pools the industry self-regulates (read: fails to regulate). We didn’t hear about how they leak and are not built to protect neighboring residents from the flood described in the article. Nor how when the sludge dries up, the toxins can then become airborne, as if they were spewed from the spokestack.
I had heard about large amounts of coal sludge flooding into a town and its water supply, but only bits of the story, and the magnitude of the disaster didn’t strike me at the time. The failed wall of the inadequately designed lagoon wall was one of many of the timebombs we have, as a society, allowed to back up on us. Failing infrastructure is bad enough. Flooding is worse. Flooding a town with a toxic sludge of coal ash (containing arsenic and mercury, among other known toxic substances) and water is just horrible. And it happened in Kingston, Tennessee, a few days before Christmas of 2008.
Let’s be clear, that we’re not talking about a bit of seepage. According to The Nation article I read, that happens all the time; the holding lagoons are generally unlined and are prone to leaks. Even though the EPA regulates such toxins as mercury and arsenic, it does not regulate coal ash, or its storage.
To be sure, this was not a minor leak:
On December 22 an earthen dike collapsed, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of the muddy waste, which knocked houses off foundations and poured into the Tennessee River basin, which feeds municipal drinking-water systems.
Now, mercury, arsenic, and many other myriad toxins in our air, including PM-10, asbestos, and dioxins specifically all really scare me. I take the presence (or feared presence) of these and other chemicals, seriously and have a combination carbon and HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter in my apartment to reduce the amount of toxins I breathe in (as does my roommate). I have read too many articles about the different cancers related to toxins in our environment to not be scared by these. So if you’re not scared, you should be.
Basically, I want to live a long life and don’t want to deal with painful, crippling and deadly diseases, so I try to avoid toxic chemicals. I also use a Pur water filter, and while there are better ones on the market, I feel I’m doing some good to remove toxins from my water.
Beside removing large amounts of dust from the air, which accumulates on the carbon filter’s surface, the HEPA filters are bleached white when new and at the end of their year of use, have turned quite gray. That’s all the small stuff in our air that we can’t even see. I’m glad it’s stuck in the accordian-folded mesh of paper instead of imbedded in my lungs, left to linger and potentially cause disease and discomfort later in life.
Okay, We Get It, You’re Careful, So…
But enough about me. I only mention all of that not to be self-congratulatory but to illustrate how dirty our air really is. Certainly, it’s not just the burning of coal that causes the pollution, but it is a major contributor.
And why does that matter? We all have to leave our homes and venture out into the polluted air in our streets. And not everyone has the cash for an air purifier (nor has the space, time, or desire to own and maintain one). Furthermore, the vast majority of that pollution ends up in our soil and water, both of which supply our food, a problem air purifiers cannot help. The sludge in these holding pools seeps into our water and soil and there’s no telling how much of it we’re getting into our food supply.
What Am I Getting At?
There are ways we can demand a different situation. It isn’t as if you didn’t know that burning coal is dirty and that beyond that, it is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. I encourage you to read the entire article for the many insights and facts it offers, but here’s a list of considerations to keep in mind:
- Industry cannot (or at least, does not) successfully regulate itself. Not typically, anyway. The interests of most industries are almost always at odds with comprehensive regulation. The tragedy of the commons is a good way to describe how most industries act regarding self-regulation.
- We need actual clean sources of energy. Calling coal and nuclear power, “clean,” doesn’t change the fact that large amounts of energy is expended to remove millions of tons of matter from the ground and at the end of the process, we’re left with millions of tons of hazardous waste (for all of which, by the way, more energy must be expended to move). Both are (currently) dirty.
- Wind and solar energy, while imperfect sources and still having a long way to go in terms of development, offer significantly cleaner sources of energy. A 21st century smart grid of transmission lines would be necessary, of course, to efficiently store and transfer that power, and that could grow slowly as we move our energy sources to carbon-free energy over the next decade.
- We can’t be fooled into believing that our major infrastructure comes for free. Anyone who wants to point at wind, solar, hydro, other clean energy sources, or the smart grid, and complain that, “it would take large subsidies to get these off the ground and I’m not sure taxpayers would want to pay for that,” is probably a moneyed interest, a flookie of moneyed interests, or someone who is just repeating said moneyed interests’ spokespeople. Highways. Airlines. Nuclear power. Our huge military industrial complex. All of these take large public subsidies, and yet we continue to fund them. The same folks in the nuclear industry will be some of the most vocal opponents of actual clean energy funding from the government.
- To some, it may seem as if because there are bigger concerns with the economy teetering and so many people not working, we should maybe put this type of change on hold, however with large amounts of government spending occurring in order to stimulate the economy, now is the time to pour more money into projects that improve our prospects for cheaper, abundant fuel, leaving us with a cleaner environment and less tied to purchasing dirty fuel. Are we really going to accept filthy water and air for ourselves?
What can you do?
First, reduce your use of fossil fuels. We have some articles here, on Earthascope for you to peruse, and there are thousands of resources online (far more comprehensive than Earthascope) with little ways for you to cut down on energy consumption. Start at Treehugger.com or Grist.org. But also, realize it isn’t just up to you — we need strong leadership.
But also, speak up! Educate yourself. Study the stimulus plan! You can search the text for key phrases to see what it says about different green technologies at ReadTheStimulus.org, which also shows the different drafts of the legislation from its conception.
Demand strong leadership! Consider calling your U.S. Senators and Representatives and voicing your opinion on these matters. Remind them how much clean air and water matter to you! Let them know that the story from the article that served as our springboard into this conversation is one you don’t want to see repeated. Use your voice!
One last thought…
In January, former Vice-President Al Gore address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and used a common refrain of his, but one worth repeating:
“We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change.”