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Only part of TVA Coal Ash Disaster is Being Told

Message Gene Messick
A flood of Coal Ash from a broken containment wall at a TVA power plant did one good thing: it sunk an absurdly distorted advertising campaign from the proponents of Clean Coal. Millions spent to divert attention from a disaster that the Coal Industry KNEW was just waiting to happen is a crime in itself.

Other than exposing this lie, critical news about this Tennessee disaster, if you can find it, is horrendous, and getting worse. Some call it another Katrina-size disaster, waiting to happen at other similar waste lagoons spread across as many as 30 states. A 2005 Associated Press analysis found that about 20 million tons of Coal Ash ends up in surface ponds like this one in eastern Tennessee. The current Administration's Environmental Protection Agency has been stonewalling this problem for 8 years, as you would expect.

If you hold a lump of coal in your hand, it seems harmless enough. But pulverize this, spray the powder into a boiler furnace, and you produce four things: 1) the Electric Power you are seeking; 2) Greenhouse Gases and particulates that go, unscrubbed, up chimneys and into our atmosphere; 3) Coal Ash remains, which, for lack of a safe means of disposal, remain as billions of gallons of toxic waste; and 4) profits for investors.

Why is this waste so many times more toxic than the original coal? Because the traces of unburnable arsenic and other heavy metals in the coal are concentrated a hundred times over in Coal Ash. Eat a helping of powdered coal, and it will make you sick. Eat a helping of Coal Ash, and you will likely die.

When a billion gallons of Coal Ash flowed into rivers and streams of eastern Tennesee, it carried with it more than 14 million pounds of dangerous chemicals, swept downstream, to leak for years into underground aquifers, like an oil spill, but far worse than an oil spill. It's hard to understand the net health hazards this one spill is creating. And this is just one of potentially many to come.

Is it any wonder that TVA and the Coal Industry is NOT rushing to the rescue? There is no up-side for them to tell the truth. There is every incentive to lie and squelch spread of news as much as possible, which is what is happening in Tennessee news media. Dreams of endless profits from coal, and electricity produced from coal, are vanishing.

So what is coal?  Not a rock, it's the fossilized remains of plants that grew on our Earth millions of years ago, trapped between layers of sediment that did become rock under tremendous pressure. Later buckled by enormous geological forces rumpling our Earth's skin, coal must be extracted by mining, either by tunneling down to where it lies in veins, or by ripping off layers of mountaintops to get to it. 

A side issue of this multi-sided problem is how many miners are lost each year, aggravated by GwB doing all he could to deregulate mine safety. Extraction of coal has always been a dirty, dangerous endeavor, a violence against our Earth's integrity. 

And now this insult is added to previous injury.

The Governor of Tennessee refuses to pay for any of the cleanup. Yesterday he announced the State has toughened rules about building future ash ponds, about 30 years too late. He said he will bill TVA for any costs the State incurs in cleaning up their negligence.

If you can stand to hear more about this new economic disaster, here are some links to alternate news media which are striving to get the word out.

An Article by Erin Brockovich (yes, she's real, not just a movie) and Robin Greenwald with lots more links to other articles found here:  TVA Disaster Spreads Far and Wide
From  t r u t h o u t  comes one of many articles: Engineer: Ash Spill Warning Signs Ignored

And this just in from the Attorney General in North Carolina:  see it online.

I've been in constant Email contact with Mary, a Tennessee activist who has been trying to rally help for her neighbors who need it. Yesterday she wrote this back when I sent her the Brockovich Article.

"Every thing she says is so true and so sad.  I have been trying to get help and support for the two activist groups that are there, on site, who have been trying to get the water tested, and since it made some folks sick, they are also getting funds from outreach to get over 50 people tested to see how much arsenic and other metals they have absorbed.
Now, today, I got a new plea for help. These brave, dedicated community activists, need haz mat respirators. And they need volunteers who know about air pollution to come, bring some of this equipment and help them monitor the air...air that is definitely full of the coal ash. 
But this is NOT a story you will see on the local news. TVA is still saying the air quality is just fine!" Mary is at

Today's update from Mary: Matt Landon with United Mountain Defense, who has been working tirelessly in Kingston, desperately needs volunteers and more haz mat respirators with double filters. He's being sickened from daily exposure, and says folks on the street are coughing and wheezing like they have pneumonia. Chris Irwin is attorney for this group, and with an older group fighting Big Coal for years, Mountain Justice Summer. His email is

"So what can I do about this", you might ask. "I don't live anywhere near Tennessee, so is there anything I can do to help?" Yes, there is, wherever you are. Americans have become electrical energy gluttons, because it was available and cheap. But we've never paid the true cost of electricity, as this Coal Ash disaster is forcing us to understand.

Turn off some lights tonight. Turn down your heat. Add a layer of clothing. Look for ways to conserve energy. Conservation is the most under utilized source of energy we have. It costs us nothing. And that's why so few advocate it. There is no profit in Conservation. You can't put a meter on Conservation and charge anyone for it. So what good is it to Big Energy and Wall Street Bankers?

The lesson to teach yourself, because few others will, is to learn how to live well with less energy. Whether your energy comes from coal, natural gas, gasoline, or nuclear power, all of these are NOT renewable sources. They are finite, as we are learning from having reached "peak oil" and are descending the more and more expensive down slope.

We cannot develop alternate energy sources fast enough, from sun, wind and waves, which will be with us for as long as we inhabit our Earth. Until we reach that safe haven, each and every one of us can learn to live well with less, thereby reducing the likelihood of more disasters in our future.

If you're near Washington on March 2nd, Greenpeace and others are calling for a Capitol Climate Action, with a link here: GET INVOLVED! On that Website, you'll find this quote from environmentalist Al Gore of Tennessee, said before the Coal Ash disaster: "I CAN'T UNDERSTAND WHY THERE AREN'T RINGS OF YOUNG PEOPLE BLOCKING BULLDOZERS AND PREVENTING THEM FROM CONSTRUCTING COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS."

And you may click on the "E-MAIL THIS" button above to send this Article to anyone who might be able to help. Thank you.

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For 17 years Gene Messick studied and taught Design at NC State University and Cornell. Co-founding the Visual Design Program at NCSU, he established the Photography Program at Cornell, where he taught in the Architecture Department, most interested (more...)
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