Happy 3rd Anniversary Kingston Fly Ash Spill!

TVA is constantly trying to figure out how to provide energy for the Tennessee Valley area. This quasi-governmental “New Deal” era agency (whose directors are appointed by the Federal Government) are regularly looking at the next 50 years and trying to make wise energy decisions.

We know that TVA has not always made good energy decisions. We are paying higher electrical prices today because of the poor decision making that has gone on at TVA in years past. No need to cry over spilled milk, we just want to make sure that we don’t keep on spilling the milk!

One primary example of poor decision making has been the coal ash storage at Kingston TN and the resulting spill/cleanup. Apparently spills/leaks had been intermittent (but small) for the preceding ten years, but on December 22, 2008, a retaining wall on a coal ash slurry storage lake broke and released over 1.1 Billion gallons of poisonous coal ash slurry into the surrounding environment (Emory, Clinch, and Tennessee Rivers).

Nobody was killed in the spill, but houses were pushed off foundations, land was damaged, and untold environmental damage occurred as fish and wildlife died en mass. Over 300 acres of farmland and residential neighborhoods were covered with the fly ash to a depth of over 6 feet.  Besides containing potentially harmful metals such as chromium, mercury, lead and selenium, as well as an unhealthy dose of arsenic, power plant coal ash, according to Scientific American, has so much concentrated uranium and thorium that it “delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage.”

The cleanup is still continuing even after 3 years. Bulldozers and heavy earth moving machines have been busily scooping and sending sludge by train to an Alabama landfill. As of December 2011 approximately 20% of the slurry still needs to be cleaned up. Hundreds of lawsuits are ongoing and TVA has spent upwards of $750 million of the estimated 1.2 Billion dollars that the total clean up will finally cost.

The rate payers are getting rammed with the bill, as since October 2009 every TVA customer has been forking over an extra $.69 per bill…. and will continue to foot this cleanup expense for the next 13 years.

This spill was huge. It was ten times the size of the spill by the infamous Exxon Valdez. It is commonly accepted that 11 million gallons of oil were spilled in 1998 during the Exxon Valdez disaster. This fly ash spill was over 1.1 Billion gallons of sludge.

One of the reasons that the fly ash is stored in the first place is because of the National Clean Air Act (December 31, 1970- Also Happy Anniversary!). The Clean Air Act required that coal producing power plants could no longer spew poisonous heavy metals into the air causing damage to the surrounding environment. The smokestacks were fitted with pollution devices which trapped the heavy metals into a waste product called “fly ash.” This fly ash was then simply dumped in pits near the coal power plants. The fly ash has never been classified by the EPA as dangerous even though it contains all of the heavy metals that are illegal to spew into the air.

When fly ash is released into a water source all of those heavy metals which would have been in the air over the past 20 years or so are simply spread throughout the ecological environment (and will make their way into the drinking water). This is a dangerous game of switcharoo that TVA is playing. They grudgingly make the air safer, but transfer that danger directly over into our drinking water.

TVA released a report 2008-12283-02 in 2009 by their own inspector general that talked about the internal culture of management that helped cause the fly ash spill. It talks about how there were two internal reports on dangerous conditions at the Kingston fly ash storage site which should have been obvious red flags. The reports recommended strengthening the containment dykes at the Kingston site. Why these recommendations were not acted upon remains a mystery to this day. The report makes it clear that the spill was certainly avoidable- had conservative management practices been followed. It goes on to say that there are other fly ash storage facilities (in TN and elsewhere) that are also currently dangerous.

The report also says that TVA’s official statements seem to be “damage control” rather than really getting the the root causes of the disaster. These statements are apparently to “limit liability” rather than truly uncover how this type of a tragedy came about (and correspondingly how to avoid a future similar incident).

Hopefully TVA is starting to factor in the environmental costs of “cheap” coal. When these coal power plants were planned and executed nobody was concerned about any “clean-up” costs or environmental costs. Those heavy metals and poisonous gasses were simply pumped into the air for others to “enjoy”.  All of the health damages from this pollution is a direct cost of coal. It is not simply $.03 per kWh as their spreadsheets promise. The true cost of coal is much, much higher. And TVA should no longer pretend that these external costs, which have previously  been allowed to be transferred to “society at large” are a legitimate way to do business.

Actually, a recent report by Dr. Paul Epstien, a medical doctor at Harvard, who along with 9 others put together a study that looks at all of the “external factors” relating to the whole life cycle of coal. When these externals are factored in the price of coal more than triples. They state that “inexpensive coal” is just a mirage.  From the abstract:

Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and thus are often considered as “externalities.” We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive. We focus on Appalachia, though coal is mined in other regions of the United States and is burned throughout the world.

This study by Dr. Epstien did not even try to factor in any climate change damages, nor any heavy metal damages (which is one  of the big problems in Kingston).

The true cost of coal is hidden in our medical bills, in our poor health, and in our damaged environment.   If the true full cost of coal (including all externalities) is factored in then the kWh cost for  coal is between $.17 and $.18.    This makes all renewable energy technologies very competitive TODAY.

The decision making at TVA that has regularly allowed all of these costs to be paid by “those suckers down river” needs to change. We need to realize that if we “foul our nest” we will be living in a cesspool. There is nobody else to trash, we are trashing our own property. With clean energy options available, and dropping rapidly in price, we need to move decisively towards an energy model that does not damage “the commons.”

If TVA cannot lead with clean energy decisions it may be time to “topple the MONOPOLY” and allow free energy competition in the TVA region.    Competition will only sharpen the competitors, and TVA seems to be bureaucratic and sluggish (typical for government institutions).    TVA’s monopoly may have been a good idea during the “New Deal”, but in the age of computers and free competition it is time to rethink how we do energy, especially if the “traditional energy providers” are biased toward dirty, dangerous and damaging energy.

The residents of Kingston Tennessee, who are still scared to drink the water,  certainly agree.

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