April 1 Special Edition: Super Up-Close, Knoxville: Coal!

Coal Ash: Is It Really So Bad?

No, it's not, say top coal-ash experts in the mining industry

When you hear the words coal ash, what comes to mind?

Most likely negative things—like the Kingston spill in late 2008, TVA's subsequent efforts to obscure its responsibility for the accident, or that the ash contains trace metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, selenium, boron, arsenic, uranium, and thorium, some of which are known carcinogens. Yet everyone knows that whenever God closes a door, He opens a window. So what about the bright side of our black, grainy friend?

First, a clarification/correction is necessary: coal ash isn't the best label because it's a catch-all term for fly ash, bottom ash, desulfurization materials, boiler slag, and other stuff produced in coal-fired power production. Also, ash is what we become when we die, so it reminds us of death and our own impending mortality. Boo! It also has associations with things unclean: soot, dirt, cigarettes, coal mines, and industrializing America—yuck! (Boiler slag has a nice ring to it, but apparently a "slag" in England is a women of disrepute, so that doesn't quite work either.)

The American Coal Ash Association and other industry groups prefer the name "coal combustion products," and since they work with it so much, it stands to reason they would know best. As coalashfacts.org points out, "Our industry refers to these materials as ‘coal combustion products' or ‘CCPs' to emphasize that they have significant commercial value." Exactly—it's not ash, or even waste, but a product! Just one letter away from produce, the fresh fruits and vegetables we all love to consume.

Back to the Kingston spill and TVA. Considering how quickly one billion gallons of coal combustion products spilled out in 2008, it's pretty remarkable that nobody died in the accident itself. Was it divine intervention? Perhaps. But does TVA get any credit for not (immediately) killing anyone? Not if you read the papers, watch television, listen to the radio, or follow the investigations.

Second, those toxic little metals—mavericks, really—found in coal combustion products are in really, really small doses. Like you probably can't even see them, even with contact lenses. Sure, selenium might cause reproductive failure in fish and work itself up through the food chain, but that could take a long time and lots of scientific research to prove. With science, can we ever really know the truth?

Also, as it turns out, TVA had been leaking this stuff at Kingston over the course of 50 years, but was anyone complaining before? Maybe, but who remembers them? And perhaps TVA was building up the tolerance in local wildlife in anticipation of a massive accident. Do they get any credit for that foresight?

Lastly, coal combustion products have all kinds of uses, including filler for golf courses, embankments, Portland cement, and carpets. "By using coal ash instead of disposing of it in landfills we are avoiding the environmental degradation and energy costs associated with mining virgin materials," reads coalashfacts.org. In fact, coal combustion recycling is a multi-billion dollar industry; if the housing bubble taught us anything, it's that whenever something's worth a lot of money, it's probably really, really valuable.

So next time a friend begins ranting about TVA, dirty coal, or the Kingston coal-ash spill, you might pull them aside and say, "Listen, Bub, 1.) the proper name is coal combustion products; and 2.) they do a lot of good for us."

Mountaintop Removal Improves Views of Other Mountains, Bordering States

Everyone's been there: You plan a nice Saturday in the Smokies, making time for all the requisite activities—an early morning hike around the Belz outlet mall, a break for lunch at Chili's, a game of Hillbilly Golf or two, then the Dixie Stampede for dinner—only to have your view obscured the whole time by pesky, protruding mountains.

Well, not for long! Coal companies have figured out a way to increase our view of neighboring states while at the same time decreasing our energy costs. Using a technique known as mountaintop removal, and with the help of some very pliant legislators, the companies simply relocate some of our oldest (read: dullest) mountains to neighboring valleys, flattening our landscape and improving the view for everyone. It's almost like smoothing out the wrinkles on a bed sheet, only using dynamite and irrevocably altering a landscape—because who wants a wrinkly bed sheet?

The coal industry employs some 400 people in Tennessee, and mountaintop removal mining allows them to squeeze even more money out of these very finite resources. That means more profits for them and more savings for us, a real win-win!

Of course, like in anything, there are naysayers who say this process scars our landscape and hurts tourism for small, short-term savings. But we're in a recession, so I bet most people wouldn't say those savings are small. And nobody knows what sort of mountain-creating technologies may be available in the future, so that's a fairly irresponsible claim.

If coal companies are allowed to continue this service to us all, just consider the possibilities—with those annoying mountains out of the way, we'll be able to look clear into North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, and Georgia, and watch their mountains get blown up as well. It'll be like Boomsday all year round!

—J.D.

John Dissembler is Senior Director of Shame-Free Public Relations and talks with coal-mining experts on a regular basis.