Cheap Coal

While rail and power barons get rich, communities like Swan Pond pay the price

The coal industry spent $35 million this year trying to convince Americans that coal is clean. "Coal can do that" is the new slogan, explicitly linked to Obama's "yes we can" in recent ads. On the industry website, they piggyback on Obama's victory under the headline "Landslide support for coal sends strong message." A landslide of ash onto the Swan Pond community in Roane County left a lump in the industry's stocking.

The ruptured dike did not kill anyone, but coal can do that. Thousands of miners have died on the job or been killed while striking for better wages. In August 2004, a 3-year-old Virginia boy was crushed while he slept when workers widening a haul road pushed a boulder down a slope above his house. Mines leave rubble piles and slurry pools prone to collapse, and alteration of natural drainage causes floods, so coal's destruction does not end when mines close. It lurks until entropy deals up enough rain, cold, or time to trigger a spill.

As such disasters go, TVA's is superlative only in volume. A half-century of fly ash piled 55 feet high across 40 acres took on a week of rain then froze, cracking open and spilling over hundreds of acres. The mud spilled into what used to be the mouth of Swan Pond Creek and the Emory River, though those waters are now part of the Watts Bar Dam impoundment. The lake water helped absorb and direct mud away from homes. Fish and other aquatic organisms have died and are dying, and metals bioaccumulate, so herons and ospreys will suffer as toxins ascend the food chain. Eventually, though, the mud will wash away and the lake recover.

Three homes condemned and a couple dozen damaged is about par for coal's toll on its neighbors. When a slurry pond failed in Kentucky in 2003, 10 counties had to drink bottled water until rains finally washed the sludge away, leaving 100 miles of streams denuded of life. An ash spill into the Clinch River in 1967 killed more than 200,000 fish along 66 river miles. Given the amount of ash released, the Kingston spill could have been worse, and the coal industry surely has worse disasters up its sleeve.

Some of coal's worst ecological impacts are intentional. With mountaintop-removal mining, creeks are buried entirely. Coal can do that. As a going-away present, Bush gave the industry explicit permission to do what they have been doing for years in the shadows of weak oversight: dump tailings into streams.

Coal combustion was the prime culprit in acid rain, a major force behind the rise in asthma and the leading cause of the carbon glut that threatens to alter global climate and sicken the seas, but the dirtiness of coal extends well beyond what happens when it burns.

Political filth allowed industry titans to amass fortunes while coal communities remained mired in poverty, any gains from their hard work spent battling occupational diseases. Mines are typically run by small operators, who face the risks of dead and injured workers and regulatory fines. In some states, these operators can elude fines simply by incorporating under a new name, sometimes with the same address as the old company. When that won't work, they just go bankrupt. This arrangement keeps the risks of mining isolated from the price of coal.

By the time an old slurry pond fails, the mine owner has moved on, so those costs revert to the government. Health costs from air pollution get paid by the sick. As a public utility, TVA has no owners to enrich, so it will likely assume responsibility for the ash spill. Passing costs off to the government makes little sense since it is they. Instead, our electricity rates will rise, and coal will remain cheap, its profit margins large enough for the industry to afford millions of dollars worth of dirty little lies.

Check out next week's That's Wild for Rikki Hall's take on what coal should do.