Energy Sources

The Myth of Clean Coal

Coal

The June 2009 issue of GQ has an article about the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history, a release of toxic coal byproduct in Roane County, Tennessee, from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant on December 22, 2008. The flash flood released 5.4 million cubic yards of thick gray sludge that buried over 300 acres of residential property and farmland near the coal-fired power plant, sludge that continues to seep into the ground and water systems while releasing harmful particulates into the air.

Here are some excerpts…


Meanwhile the Kingston plant was incinerating 5 million tons of coal every year and dumping the ash at the edge of the river. Every so often, bulldozers would sculpt bottom ash, the heavy and coarse material left in the furnaces, and dirt into the dike, raising it a few feet one year and a few feet more another year, then add interior barriers until it was actually several ponds—cells, in the jargon—enclosed by one massive levee. It grew longer and wider and higher, but the sides were always seeded with grass so that after more than fifty years it had come to resemble a well-manicured mesa, standing upwards of sixty feet high on eighty-four acres of riverbank.

The dike was not merely breached. It did not spring a leak. It collapsed, most of the northern and western walls disintegrating into mud and mush just before one o’clock in the morning on December 22. When it fell away, the wet ash behind it—more than a billion gallons of gray slurry, a hundred times more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez—gushed out with the fury of a reservoir bursting through a dam, which, really, was exactly what it was.

The ash covered more than 300 acres, but not level and smooth like an oil slick or a flood. Solid blocks of it were scattered like boulders the size of cars and small trucks. In the channel and the inlet, odd stalagmites ten and fifteen and twenty feet tall poked up from what had been the surface of the water, which wasn’t water at all anymore but an enormous gray puddle.

And the next day, some flacks in the TVA’s press office wrote a talking-points memo about the spill and the local water quality that some other flacks then rewrote (and which someone else later mistakenly sent to the Associated Press). After the editing, the spill was no longer catastrophic but merely sudden and accidental, and it did not dump 2.6 million cubic yards (which was off by more than half, anyway) but 1,600 acre-feet, which employs both a smaller number and a unit of measurement few people can readily visualize. The toxic metals in the ash—lead, mercury, arsenic, thallium, selenium, the list goes on—were now merely contaminants, and there were only minute quantities of those, which, relative to a billion gallons of slurry, is not technically inaccurate. All the water tests, meanwhile, indicated that the contamination was below state limits set to protect fish and aquatic life, though the more ominous phrase from acute effects was deleted…

If you are interested in the proposition of “clean coal”, read the article,”Black Tide”, in its entirety.

Some aerial footage of the disaster from the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Kingston Spill - Pre-event
Figure 1: Kingston Spill – Pre-event; Image: Tennessee Valley Authority

Kingston Spill - Post-event
Figure 2: Kingston Spill – Post-event; Image: Tennessee Valley Authority

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