This has gotten almost no attention in the US press, but two days ago in Tennessee a fly ash retention pond at a coal-fired power plant was breached causing 1.7 million cubic yards of toxic sludge to flow into a tributary of the Tennessee River.
Fly ash is a byproduct of coal incineration and contains harmful levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Luckily the plant–in Kingston, Tennessee–is not in a highly populated area, however 12 homes were damaged and scores of others saw their property littered with dead fish. According to the head of the TVA, the sludge pit had experienced seepage in the past.
This should give caution to coal enthusiasts like incoming President Barack Obama who intends to promote what he calls “clean coal” as a method to sequester carbon in the effort to address issues of climate change.
Even if you were able to successfully sequester carbon from coal-fired power plants (a dubious proposition), it still has a host of other hazards. In addition to the toxic sludge issue, the process of coal extraction in Appalachia is insidious as it disrupts water quality and hydrological cycles from “mountaintop removal.” It also is an extremely dangerous industry for workers.
Hopefully Congress and Obama’s energy team will remember the spill in Kingston as they deliberate about future energy policy.