At 1 A.M. on December 22, a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge flooded eastern Tennessee. The sludge covered 400 acres of land, in some places six feet deep, and flowed into the tributaries of the Tennessee River. The massive environmental disaster received little coverage in the national media, which is not surprising considering the media blackout of the ongoing environmental disaster called Clean Coal.
Despite its constant use in discussions about climate change, Clean Coal currently has nothing to do with carbon emissions. Clean Coal is simply coal that has had some of its most harmful elements removed. Instead of being burned, these poisons, including lead, mercury, selenium, and arsenic, are dumped into enormous sludge pools near power plants in Appalachia where they leak slowly into the ground water. This time the poisonous sludge rushed from its pool, directly into local rivers. All sludge ponds poison the local environment, killing local plants, animals, and humans. In an especially troubling case, a sludge pool is located 300 feet above Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia. In some areas of Appalachia, tap water is so contaminated that it runs black and destroys pipes and water heaters.
Additionally, the mining practices producing this coal are not clean. Most of the coal burned in Appalachia comes from Mountaintop Removal, an incredibly destructive form of mining in which mountains are blown up and coal is removed with enormous machines. This results in horrible environmental destruction in an area that used to have one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world.
Disappointingly, President Obama expresses his support for the continued use of coal. He is a proponent of a fantasy technology known as carbon capture and sequestration. In theory, we would be able to capture the carbon dioxide emissions from coal, convert them to a solid form, and store them underground forever. Unfortunately, no one has a clue how to do this.
Coal can never be clean. Even if it were possible to sequester the emissions, some of the poorest areas of Appalachia would still be poisoned by the effects of mining and burning coal. Though Obama has promised action on the environment, the action he proposes will not be enough. Our generation will suffer the effects of the climate crisis. We do not have the luxury of waiting for fantasy technologies to be invented or for politicians to dream up false solutions. Our addiction to cheap energy must be broken because it is not worth the costs. Either we can have aluminum cans and SUVs or we can have a living environment.
It is up to us to solve these problems. We will not be saved by Jesus, Santa Claus, Exxon-Mobil or Barack Obama. We must transform our economy, transitioning away from world trade, industrial agriculture, urban sprawl, and the like. Otherwise we will continue to destroy lives, including our own.
The situation in Tennessee is still urgent and we can take action now. The EPA denies coal sludge is poisonous, declaring that mercury and arsenic were “barely detectable” in the sludge and telling residents to boil their water. However, independent results have shown arsenic levels 35-300 times above legal limits. Small non-profit groups such as United Mountain Defense are paying for bottled water and heavy metal testing for local residents, many of whom are extremely ill due to drinking poisonous water. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the EPA are doing nothing to help people in the area. United Mountain Defense is in need of donations, in order to continue providing heavy metal tests and water. You can donate via paypal on their website, UnitedMountainDefense.org.