Category Archives: eco-justice

Clean Coal Strikes Again

Looks like another coal slurry mess polluting a river in Tennessee:

Coal mining waste has tainted several miles of the New River in East Tennessee in violation of a permit held by Premium Coal at a plant in Devonia, TN, according to state information.

The release of a fine, grayish-black material that results when separating coal from shale and rock is estimated to have lasted 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Jan. 2.

The state was not notified at the time, as required, said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment said.

Of course not! The glorious free hand of the market was supposed to fix the problem! Oppressive government agencies like the Tennessee Dept. of Environment & Conservation just get in the way of the natural order of things!

TDEC says slurry was found seven miles downstream, while the activist group Community eMpowerment says black water was seen 40 miles downstream from the coal processing plant. Just keep repeating: coal is cheap! And clean! And cheap!

And since we’re talking about “clean” coal, I’ve been wanting to update folks on the cleanup from our last big coal slurry disaster, the devastating 2008 Kingston Coal Ash spill, which dumped 1.1 billion (that’s with a “b”) gallons of toxic coal ash sludge into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, obliterating everything in its way (including homes). The cleanup involved hauling the toxic goop over 300 miles away to a landfill in Alabama, which just so happens to be located in Alabama’s poorest county. It’s also, surprise surprise, a predominantly African-American county. While landfill operators touted the 30 jobs and $3 million in “host fees” Perry County would receive, I wrote at the time that this placed the community in the untenable position of choosing between poverty and poison.

I wrote then:

And if taking this coal ash waste were such a great thing, well, we’ve got some landfills here in Tennessee, in counties that could use those jobs and that money. Gotta ask yourself why we’re shipping it out of state to begin with.

Well, it appears the residents of Perry County, AL asked that same question and have filed a civil right lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management:

The complaint charges ADEM with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds. ADEM receives millions of dollars in financial assistance from the EPA each year.

[…]

The population of Perry County is over 68 percent African-American, and over 35 percent falls below the poverty line, making it Alabama’s poorest county. The landfill is located near Uniontown, Ala., a community where 88 percent of residents are African-American and almost half live in poverty. The population in the census blocks surrounding the landfill range from 87 to 100 percent African-American (click on map for larger version).

The landfill sits only 100 feet from the front porches of some residents, who say they have experienced frequent foul odors, upset appetite, respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. They also complain that fugitive dust from the facility has contaminated their homes, porches, vehicles, laundry and plantings.

This is how the “free hand of the market” works in America. Coal is cheap, we tell ourselves, and it fuels our glorious lifestyle, and government support of clean technology like wind and solar is socialism. And then when the inevitable disaster strikes, we make our poorest citizens suffer the longterm consequences. Oh right, and be sure to tell these poor people living with radioactive, arsenic -laden coal sludge that their health problems are just proof of how irresponsible they are. Any notion they had of getting some kind of access to the world’s best healthcare is just more crazy socialism talk.

Anyone who can’t see how all of these issues are connected is simply lying to themselves. And who is going to solve this problem? The man from Bain Capital who fired thousands so his company could be more profitable? The intellectual policy wonk who is allergic to drama?

No. It’s our problem. We caused it. We are the ones who demanded “cheap” electricity, so we’ll just ignore the costs on things like healthcare, blame the people who are suffering, remind ourselves we’re a Christian nation, drop a check in the collection plate on Sunday and call it a day.

How much longer can we operate like this? Not much, I’m afraid.

Wake up, America.

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Filed under ash spill, clean coal, eco-justice, environment, EPA, racism, Tennessee

Choosing Between Poverty & Poison

I’m watching a re-run of CBS 60 Minutes’ piece on toxic e-waste sent to China. This quote from Jim Puckett of watchdog group Basel Action Network resonated:

“It’s a helluva choice between poverty and poison. We should never make people make that choice.”

Damn straight. It’s what we’re talking about when we discuss “environmental racism” and “eco-justice.” It’s also little different from how we are dealing with the toxic coal ash from last year’s Kingston Fossil Plant spill, save by degrees. Indeed, the toxic coal ash from Kingston is now being hauled to a landfill in economically depressed, predominantly African American Perry County, Ala. And it’s causing a rift in that community because we’ve basically asked those folks to make a choice we never should have burdened them with.

These stories always seem to follow the same pattern. On the one hand there is the lure of money and jobs:

A per-ton “host fee” that the landfill operators pay the county will add more than $3 million to the county’s budget of about $4.5 million.

The ash has created more than 30 jobs for local residents in a county where the unemployment rate is 17 percent and a third of all households are below the poverty line.

Money is great but short term profits are not worth long term environmental and health damage, say many in the community:

“I won’t feel comfortable,” wrote W. Compson Sartain, a columnist for The Perry County Herald, “until I see a delegation from E.P.A. and T.V.A. standing on the courthouse square, each member stirring a heaping spoonful of this coal ash into a glass of Tennessee river water this stuff has already fallen into, and gargling with it.”

(Sartain might be interested in United Mountain Defense’s challenge to “clean coal” pitchman/sport fisherman Jeremy Starks, as well.)

And, as always, there is a general lack of education and information about the risks:

Mr. Cureton reasoned that the ash, a byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity, could not be more dangerous than the remnants of the coal that heated his schoolroom growing up, or the ash his father, a farmer, sprinkled at the base of his fruit trees.

But coal ash from a power plant has a higher concentration of toxins because mercury, arsenic and other substances that are filtered out by air pollution controls end up in the ash. Since the spill in Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency has promised to issue new regulations for coal ash, potentially classifying it as a hazardous waste.

People like Mr. Cureton, who I have no doubt is sincere in his efforts to do the best for his community, are why issues of environmental racism and eco-justice are so pernicious. But I’d remind these people that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And if taking this coal ash waste were such a great thing, well, we’ve got some landfills here in Tennessee, in counties that could use those jobs and that money. Gotta ask yourself why we’re shipping it out of state to begin with.

Of course, none of this would be an issue if “clean coal” were as “clean” as the coal lobby likes to pretend.

I use the pronoun “we” for a reason in this post. Because this is our mess. We all created it, in our use electricity. Of course, we have few choices if we’re going to live a normal life in this culture. But there are things we can do. We can conserve. We can sign up for programs like TVA’s Green Power Switch. And some of us can help generate alternative fuels by putting solar panels on our roofs.

And maybe in this way we can bring some justice and jobs to our neighbors, instead of dumping our toxic trash on them.

Because we should never ask anyone to choose between poverty and poison so we can prosper and live in comfort.

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Filed under ash spill, clean coal, eco-justice, environment, TVA