Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Clean Coal Update: Monday's Toxic Ash Slide In Eastern Tennessee

Sometimes the synchronicity that takes place in this world is absolutely amazing! Over the past day or so, I had been working on and published here a sort of exposé on the myth of clean coal; this, in response to a letter that appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Times on December 9, which propagated the myth of clean coal. The letter was authored by Paul Chodak, the President and Chief Operating Officer at SWEPCO in Shreveport. This afternoon, while browsing some of my favorite websites, I stopped at the Democracy Now site and came upon one of today's leading headlines, which reads, "Spill at Tennessee Coal Plant Creates Environmental Disaster." The following paragraph came after the headline:

"Parts of Tennessee remain buried under toxic sludge today after a major disaster at a coal plant. A forty-acre pond containing toxic coal ash has collapsed, spilling out millions of gallons of coal ash. Environmentalists say the spill is more than thirty times larger than the Exxon Valdez, but the story has received little national attention. Greenpeace is calling for a criminal investigation."

The spill, reportedly occurred on Monday when a forty-acre pond containing highly-toxic coal ash collapsed. An estimated 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled out of its containment area. Approximately 400 acres of land is now buried under some six feet of dangerous sludge. Homes and roads are buried under the toxic mixture and reportedly, some of the sludge has made its way into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides water to municipalities and serves as drinking water to millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.

The spill, which occurred just west of Knoxville at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, a plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), has received almost no attention in the national media. Similar disasters, which have taken place during recent years and decades in Appalachia, also received little national media attention. Could it be that vital information is being withheld from the public in order to allow the coal industry's "clean coal" propaganda to proceed without any serious debate? If so, the news media is seriously failing in its responsibility to keep the public informed on vital issues.

One thing is for sure: The American people need to know about this recent disaster. There can be no real debate about a national energy policy when the public knows nothing about this dark side of the clean coal myth.

Here are a couple of links for more information on this coal-ash spill:

Click here for a link to Democracy Now's coverage in text and streaming video.

Here is more information from the TVA's own website (includes flyover video footage at the bottom of the page).

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Dark Side of Clean Coal

I have always loved trees, and I feel that over the years, I have at times expended great effort to protect them. Last September however, when Fayetteville took a direct hit from the remains of Hurricane Ike, I had a rather new experience with some of the trees around my cabin as the wind and rain brought three or four of them down upon the cottage that I live in. Fortunately, there was very little damage. It could have been much worse.

After the storm, I looked at some of the trees that still stood directly in back of and in close proximity to the house. They were of the same type that came down and gave me such a harrowing night during Ike - tall, and of that invasive species known as the Tree of Heaven, or more scientifically, Ailanthus altissima. Looking closely at them, I could see that the direction they were leaning in, or their center of gravity, made them a further threat to the cottage; another wind or ice storm could easily bring them down upon me - perhaps, even as I slept. Much to my personal consternation, I decided that they had to go; and, they did a few days ago.

Even though these trees were of a prolific and invasive species, I took no pleasure in seeing them go. Now, when I step outside my back door, I see the stumps where the trees once stood, the stumps surrounded only by sawdust. Seeing the destruction that I caused, even though it was necessary, leaves me with a feeling of sadness. There is a new scar upon the Earth, and it's right outside my back door. Now, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring when some of the tall grasses that present themselves there each year will grow back and will begin to heal the scar.

Being of such a sensitive nature, at least in an environmental sense, it's difficult for me to imagine that there are many people that, when pushing their industry's agenda upon the general public, will conceal many of the facts about that industry's environmentally-destructive nature. At this point in time, I am particularly talking about the propaganda coming forth from the Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) as it pushes for the construction of the
John W. Turk Jr. Power Plant in Hempstead County; a plant, that SWEPCO claims will burn so-called "clean coal."

On December 9, a letter to the editor appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Times that was authored by Paul Chodak, the President and Chief Operating Officer of SWEPCO in Shreveport. During the course of his letter, Mr. Chodak presented the typical selling points of those promoting clean coal. Near the end of the letter he said, "We take seriously our responsibility to protect the environment as we work to bring the latest technology to the region to provide reasonably priced and reliable electricity to our customers."

What Mr. Chodak failed to mention is that the process for producing coal, including so-called clean coal, often involves one of the most environmentally-destructive operations on Earth. This process is called mountain-top removal coal mining, and it is seriously impacting many parts of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains with environmental desecration that not only harms wildlife, but threatens entire communities as well. Mountain-top removal mining has been referred to as "strip mining on steroids." Much of the Appalachian's scenic beauty is being destroyed by this process.

Through this process the forest, and often most of a mountain, is first clear-cut and stripped of virtually all vegetation. Then the top 800 to 1,000 feet of the hill are bulldozed away and the top is completely leveled. The resulting debris is then pushed over the side and deposited into the valleys and streams below, thus polluting and damming up streams that are used for fishing, or even eventually, municipal water supplies.

Large amounts of water and toxic chemicals are used in order to supposedly, wash or clean the coal. At a time when demand and competition for clean water continues to grow, large amounts of it are permanently taken out of circulation and are stored in large slurry ponds - reservoirs of thick liquid and toxic waste. These slurry ponds often jeopardize public safety.

On October 11, 2000, one such slurry impoundment gave way spilling an estimated 300 million gallons of toxic sludge near Inez, Kentucky.
The EPA referred to the Inez spill as the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States as the toxic mixture fouled some 100 miles of waterways and buried parts of the community under seven feet of coal sludge. On February 26, 1972, a coal-waste dam burst in Logan County, West Virginia. According to reliable reports and eyewitness testimony, over 132 million gallons of sludge barreled through some 16 coal-mining communities along Buffalo Creek, thus killing 125 people and leaving another 4,000 homeless.

There are good reasons to oppose the use and further mining of coal that go way beyond the singular discussion of air quality that industry executives such as Mr. Chodak would like to keep us focused on. These represent an even darker side to the story than most of the public ever gets to hear about. Still, just because these concerns are never addressed by industry personnel does not mean that they are not valid. There is no such thing as clean coal!

It's likely that not everyone will have the same environmental sensitivity as I do. We are all different and every individual has his or her own way of looking at things. Still, it seems to me that the deliberate covering up or downplaying of potentially catastrophic processes such as mountain-top removal coal mining with the use of phrases such as "clean coal," carries the topic away from one of sensitivity to one of downright deception by the electric and coal industries. The public needs to know all of the truth, not just a part of it.

Please note: Both photos courtesy of Vivian Stockman / , and the flyover courtesy of .

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Obama National Security Team: A Look into the Crystal Ball

On Monday, President-Elect Obama went public with his choices for the nation's new national security team, and these choices don't bode very well for those who voted Mr. Obama into office in order to bring about real change - particularly as regards foreign policy. The president-elect's choices include his former presidential race opponent and hawk on the Middle-Eastern affairs Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the current Secretary of Defense and Bush appointee Robert Gates, and the long-time friend of John McCain and former Marine Corp and NATO Commandant General James L. Jones as National Security Adviser.

There are many who are currently praising Mr. Obama's choices. These include the former Speaker of the House and author of the Contract With America Newt Gingrich, and war criminal Henry Kissinger; these praises come particularly in regard to the appointment of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State. In the context of the growing threat of world-wide terrorism, these appointments do not bode well for either the reversal of our nation's never-ending quest for empire, or the elimination of the root causes of terrorism and anti-Americanism. "But wait," some have said. "Didn't we experience peace and prosperity during the administration of Bill Clinton?" If so, the reasoning goes, what could possibly be wrong with appointing the knowledgeable Hillary as Secretary of State, and what would be wrong with bringing former members of the Clinton Administration into the new Obama Administration?

The answer to that may lie in the fact that during the 90's, even though we enjoyed the illusion of peace, anti-Americanism and outright anger against us was growing. Perhaps this growing anger was a bit under the radar for awhile, but it should have become evident to us on October 12, 2000 when a suicide bomber attacked the U.S.S. Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden. On that day, 17 Americans were killed and another 39 were injured in the attack. While the Sudanese government was ultimately credited with being liable for the attack, it was Al-Qaeda that carried it out. Clearly, discontent with U.S. policy in the Middle East had become evident at that time.

What specific policies could have brought about this anger? On August 6, 1990 the United Nations, supported by the United States, put an almost total trade and economic embargo against Iraq, which at that time, was under the control of our former ally, Saddam Hussein. The embargo, while originally designed to force Hussein out of Kuwait, was kept in place until after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. During the period after the first Gulf War, and during his entire administration, President Clinton made no effort to remove the embargo or to lessen its effect upon the Iraqi people. The effect of that embargo upon ordinary citizens in Iraqi, particularly children, was horrific. Wikipedia puts it this way:

"The sanctions resulted in high rates of malnutrition, lack of medical supplies, and diseases from lack of clean water. Chlorine, was desperately needed to disinfect water supplies, but it was banned from the country due to the potential that it may be used as part of a chemical weapon. On May 10, 1996, Madeleine Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time) appeared on 60 Minutes and was confronted with statistics of half a million children under five having died as a result of the sanctions. She replied "we think the price is worth it..."

On March 16, 2003 Rachel Corrie, a young U.S. citizen from Olympia, Washington who had traveled to Gaza as a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was run over and killed by a Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozer operated by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as she sat in its way in order to protest the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli government in the Gaza strip, a practice routinely carried out by the Israeli forces against Palestinians. Before her death Corrie, in a March 14 interview with the Middle East Broadcasting Company said, ""I feel like I'm witnessing the systematic destruction of a people's ability to survive ... Sometimes I sit down to dinner with people and I realize there is a massive military machine surrounding us, trying to kill the people I'm having dinner with."

While the Israeli military and government claimed that Rachel Corrie's death was an accident, ISM eyewitnesses tell a different story. Regardless of the actual circumstances of her death however, e-mails she sent back home tell the story of her grief and total disbelief over the human-rights abuses the Palestinians face in Gaza on a day to day basis - all of this with the full support of the U.S. Government. You can read her e-mails, as published in The Guardian by clicking here and here. Rachel Corrie, bye the way, has been praised by those who knew her as an "extraordinary" person.

In 2005 then Senator Hillary Clinton stood in Palestine and praised the construction of an apartheid wall by the Israeli Government - a project, which was carried out with large amounts of U.S. aid. This wall, which the United Nations World Court has declared as contrary to international law, has in recent weeks, been used to cut off the Palestinian population from shipments of food, fuel for the generation of electricity, and other necessary supplies. None of President-Elect Obama's national security team appointees has ever, to the knowledge of this writer, uttered a single word of protest over Israel's policy of collective punishment against the Palestinian people.

To a fairly large extent, Barak Obama owes his election victory to the anti-war faction of the American public; for it is this segment of the population that has been crying out for change since at least 2001, and more forcibly, since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. It is this segment of the population that realizes the continued control of another sovereign people in Iraq will only continue to spur resentment and insurgencies against us. It is this segment of the American voting public that sees immorality in the continuation of bombing attacks against entire villages in Afghanistan; this in order to kill one or two terror suspects. Terror is in the eyes of the beholder, and the causing of such widespread death and destruction of a largely innocent civilian population might be considered a form of terrorism in and of itself; particularly, by those most affected by it. Yet, from the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff to Joseph Biden as his running mate, and from Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State to the continuation of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Barak Obama is filling his national security team and his cabinet with war hawks; there's not a solitary voice for peace among them.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama often spoke of Martin Luther King and the dreams and aspirations that he presented to the American people. Dr. King however, was not only a civil-rights activist; he cared deeply about the creation of peace and justice for all of humanity as well. On April 4, 1967 Dr. King delivered a speech at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. During that address and in referring to U.S. involvement in Vietnam at the time, he put it this way:

" "Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."

In all fairness to Mr. Obama, he did say that the the buck stops at his desk - that he will be the decision maker. Additionally, the man hasn't even been sworn into office yet and therefore, his actions cannot rightly be judged until he begins setting policy. Still, with the choices made concerning his national security team, at least up to this point, the future doesn't bode very well for any significant change. One only has to look at the terror attacks that took place last week in Mumbai, and the growing potential for war between India and Pakistan as a result of those attacks - two long-time rivals armed with nuclear weapons, to realize the wisdom of Dr. King's words. We can only hope that when Barak Obama becomes president, he will take those words to heart.