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,

About Andrew Dermont

Andrew Dermont organized the overhaul of the Argus website. He is now the Blargus Editor and oversees the publication of all online-specific content.
  • Pete

    Damn man, thanks for doing this. I’ve seen the commercials but didn’t really know what it was about. Favorite line:

    “We will not be saved by Jesus, Santa Claus, Exxon-Mobil or Barack Obama. ” Indeed.

  • CoalKillz

    Coal Is Some Wack Sheeet

  • Matt

    I really dont see the problem with mountain top removal.

  • Charlie

    I don’t see what the problem is about mountain top removal either. It only destroys entire ecosystems and displaces whole communities in order to blow up a mountain or so at a time so we can suck the earth dry for all it’s worth. Really, what’s the big deal?

  • Maureen

    Nice. A bit of an over-simplification of this fucked up clean coal issue, but you got your point across.

  • Jon Booth

    i had a 600 word limit.

  • Maureen


  • Sarah

    Excellent piece. For anyone who doesn’t see a problem with what they’re doing to our land, I invite you to come live, eat, drink, and play in one of these many areas impacted by mining. Dare you to drink the water!

  • John

    Thanks for the summary – now let’s reduce our power use and decentralize and subscribe to wind and geothermal and get the true costs of coal power out there! I bicycle a lot which has greatly reduced my fossilfootprint… it’s fun!

  • Mike

    How about we stop bitching about our energy souces and start limiting our energy consumption? People love to talk about alternative energy but cringe at the idea that maybe we should use less electricity, avoid unneccessary driving, and stop wasting water.

  • Phil

    Here’s kind of an odd thought. Build some geothermal where it can work. Build some wind farms where they can work. Put in some solar panels where they can work well. And build some nuclear power plants where none of that is sufficient.

    Before you start bitching about the inherent dangers of nuclear power, do some research. Its really useful to learn things.

    Anyhow, once we do that, I’m pretty sure we can easily have more than enough energy to do whatever we want, including getting clean drinking water in the African slums and such. It works great that way.

  • Jon Booth

    one of the problems with nuclear power (besides creating waste that lasts basically forever and that we have no idea how to get rid of) is very similar to the problem with the Black Mesa coal. The mining practices are terrible and often displace indigenous people.

  • ebantidewater

    I’m glad somebody spoke of the real cost of nuclear power – the very dirty mining practices. There are plenty of these tailing ponds throughout the west that are so toxic that life as we know it cannot live in them. I was with Phil all the way until he advocated for Nuclear power. If we all just cut back to the essentials, check our egos, stand up to the advertising BS, we will give our planet a real fighting chance at recovering from our last 100 years of industrialization!