Saturday, December 27, 2008

Environmental Disaster at Coal Power Facility

An environmental disaster occurred at a coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee on Dec. 22. A dam holding 5.4 Million of cubic yards of waste Coal Ash slurry gave way and the contents smashed through a Harriman neighborhood, knocking one home off its foundation, damaging 11 others, and toppling trees and power lines. It left 4 to 6 feet of gray ash muck across a 300 to 400 acre area, draining into nearby rivers that supply drinking water downstream to millions of people. Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals which can cause cancer and neurological problems, and are used in rat poison and insecticides. [click image to enlarge]

The coal ash dam broke at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power station on the banks of the Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River near the confluence of the Tennessee River. Many of the coal ash chunks released from the dam were huge, the size of boulders and icebergs. A map of the area showing the coal plant (fire icon), 40 acre ash storage ponds (grey area), dam breach (thick, red line), derailed coal train (train icon) rivers (wave icons) and flow directions (red arrows) is below (click icons, shaded areas, line and arrows for photos and more information).

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TVA authorities initially issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxins. "Most of that material is inert," said Gilbert Francis Jr., a TVA spokesman. "It does have some heavy metals within it, but it's not toxic or anything."

Residents were told by the TVA to boil their water, but environmentalists warned residents that boiling would not remove the toxic heavy metals. Subsequent testing of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a TVA spokesman. Lead is known to be a potent neurotoxin, and thallium is highly toxic and is used in rat poisons and insecticides.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently performing independent tests of the waterways affected by the spill as well as those upstream of the spill for comparison.

Chemicals and metals from coal ash have contaminated drinking water in several states, made people and animals sick in New Mexico, and tainted fish in Texas and elsewhere, according to Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit national environmental law firm that follows the issue. It's an easy problem to fix, and at the very least should be placed in lined, state-of-the-art landfills, she said.

One Harriman resident expressed concern about the affects on her family's health after breathing the coal ash dust once the water in it dries out. TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said that people should wash their clothes if it gets on them and that the real concern would be for the material to be airborne. That wouldn't happen because it's rainy and damp, he said.

Activists for years have pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal ash, such as this, as a hazardous waste. Jeff Stant, with the Environmental Integrity Project, said ash is the country's second-largest industrial waste stream, after mining wastes. "EPA has shirked its responsibility to do something about this for years. The law says EPA has to manage the wastes in a way to make sure they don't pose any imminent danger to health and the environment. EPA has failed to do that." This is not the first time that the EPA has been slow to deal with Coal-related hazards detrimental to public health and the environment.

The EPA needs to take bold action on hazardous coal ash waste and this environmental disaster. EPA needs to ensure a rapid and safe cleanup of the coal ash spill, and to regulate coal ash storage now. EPA must Protect the public from potential health risks and Protect the Environment, including property and homes (see photo, below). That's their job! Let the Obama Transition Team know how you feel about this environmental disaster by sending them an e-mail message: Click Here.
[click image to enlarge]
One only needs to look at the photos taken around the coal ash dam breach at the Kingston Power Plant to realize that coal will Never, Ever, be clean. We need to shift to real clean energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Obama's Science, Energy, EPA and Climate Team

President-elect Obama takes a bold stand for making decisions based on science and facts rather than ideology.

Barack Obama introduced leading members of his science and technology team. He appointed Dr. John Holdren as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Dr. Holdren, a Harvard physicist, is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is an expert on energy technology policy and nuclear nonproliferation, and a strong advocate of cutting CO2 emissions to slow gobal warming.

Obama also named Dr. Jane Lubchenco as his choice to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dr. Lubchenco, a marine biologist at Oregon State University, is also a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is in favor of cutting CO2 emissions in order to stabilize the climate and to protect sea life. Read more and see a video of Obama's address here.

Earlier, Obama selected Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and clean-energy advocate, to run the federal Department of Energy (DOE). Dr. Chu heads the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and his lab currently does research on new forms of low-carbon energy. As Energy Secretary, Dr. Chu will have to deal with coal supporters, as the DOE has granted millions of dollars to designing new power plants that capture carbon dioxide from coal.

Other nominees include Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator; Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. Read more here.

In addition to his post as the President's Science Advisor, Dr. Holdren was appointed Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). President-elect Obama also appointed Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize winner for cancer research, and Dr. Eric Lander, human genome mapper at MIT and Harvard, as the other co-chairs. PCAST is an external advisory council that Obama says will shape his thinking on the scientific aspects of policy priorities.

As a scientist, environmentalist, and clean energy advocate, all that I can say is: Pinch me, I must be dreaming!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

MORE New Coal-Fired Power Plants?

Officials weighing federal applications by utilities to build new coal-fired power plants cannot consider their greenhouse gas output, Stephen Johnson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled on Thursday. Environmentalists fear the decision will clear the way for the approval of several such plants in the last days of the Bush administration.

Just about a month ago, the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board ruled that the EPA had no valid reason for refusing to limit the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming from new coal-fired power plants. This appeared to be great news for clean, alternative energy since the appeals court ruling would stop permitting of any new coal-burning power plants for some time.

However, a memorandum issued by EPA head, Stephen Johnson, on Thursday puts the agency on record saying that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant to be regulated when approving power plants.

James Hansen, the nation’s leading climate scientist has said, “The science is clear: a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and phase-out of existing coal plants, is essential if we want to preserve creation, the life on our planet, for young people and future generations.”

Under the Bush administration, the EPA has rejected the idea that greenhouse gases should be regulated like other kinds of air pollution, despite an April 2007 Supreme Court ruling that said carbon dioxide fit the definition of a pollutant that could be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has formally requested for a Department of Justice investigation into the potential criminal conduct of EPA head Stephen Johnson. Whitehouse said that Johnson put "the interests of corporate polluters before science and the law” in ozone, lead, soot, tailpipe emissions, and global warming pollution. In a speech on the senate floor, Whitehouse said, "The American people cannot accept such a person in a position of such great responsibility. I am sorry it has come to this, but I call on Administrator Johnson to resign his position."

To see EPA head Stephen Johnson in 'inaction', watch this video. His middle name should be Stonewall: Stephen "Stonewall" Johnson. He deserves a Fossil Fool Award for his actions as well as his inactions on CO2 emissions and global warming.

A change to President-elect Obama's newly selected team on environment and energy can not come fast enough.

For the full reports, see: New York Times, Washington Post, Wonk Room

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Victory for Mountaintops!

An earlier blog post described the devastating effects that coal extraction by mountaintop removal has on the environment and the health and well being of nearby communities in Appalachia (watch this video). Over 450 mountaintops have been destroyed, one of which is shown in the photo [click photo to enlarge]. Environmentalists have pressured banks, including Bank of America, Citi, JP Morgan Chase and others, to stop financing coal extraction via mountaintop removal. In a victory for mountaintops, Bank of America decided yesterday to phase out financing for companies that practice mountaintop removal coal mining!

“Bank of America’s decision is a giant leap forward in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining, which has devastated Appalachian communities and the mountains and streams they depend on,” said Rebecca Tarbotton, director of Rainforest Action Network’s Global Finance Campaign, which has pressed Bank of America since October 2007 to cease financing of mountaintop removal mining and coal-fired power plants. “We hope that Citi, JP Morgan Chase and other banks follow Bank of America’s lead.” Read more here.

Bank of America’s new policy comes just one day after the Bush administration approved a rule that will make mountaintop removal mining easier for coal companies by allowing them to dump rock and dirt from the mining operations into nearby streams and valleys. That rule has been bitterly contested by environmentalists and Appalachian communities. Edward C. Hopkins, a policy analyst at the Sierra Club, said: “The E.P.A.’s own scientists have concluded that dumping mining waste into streams devastates downstream water quality. By signing off on this rule, the agency has abdicated its responsibility.” Read more here.

The hope is that through continued pressure from environmentalists, other banks will be moved to follow Bank of America's lead and help put a complete end to mountaintop removal.

Massey Energy plans to mine more than 6,000 acres of the Coal River Mountain, one of the last mountains left intact in the beautiful Coal River Valley of West Virginia. As an alternative, local residents propose building a wind farm. To help the West Virginia residents save the mountain, and move the Governor to shift from a coal economy to a renewable energy economy, sign this petition.

Barack Obama has said that he wanted strong enforcement of the Clean Water Act, and that “We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal, than simply blowing the tops off mountains.” Let's hold him to these promises. In addition, let's push him to accelerate the transition from coal to renewable energy sources. Coal is not a renewable resource, and there is no such thing as 'clean coal'. To e-mail president-elect Obama and let him know that we need Clean Energy, not 'clean coal', click here.