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Powering Past Coal 

The Harriman disaster reminds that there's no such thing as clean coal

01.21.09


Back in December, I downloaded a video emailed from an environmentalist friend who lives back east. It featured anthropomorphized chunks of coal. Each lump grinned and bounced while I followed instructions to "dress" them in warm clothes such as hats and scarves. When attired, the coal characters began singing "Joy to the World" under a banner reading, "Clean Coal." I waited for sarcastic lyrics to deliver the punch line. But none came. My friend had sent me a marketing video. Exploiting the holiday spirit of love and joy, the coal industry intended I should welcome in the oxymoronic concept of "clean coal" as I would welcome holiday carolers. Not.

We don't have a theme song for the climate-protection movement. A lot of uplifting songs come to mind. But while I'm feeling solidarity with victims south of the Mason-Dixon, I think we need a song about heartbreaking loss. Maybe the "Tennessee Waltz," where the lyrics claim, "I know just how much I have lost."

Tennessee is 2,500 miles from here. And because the North Bay and the rest of California enjoy some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country, and there are no coal formations atop Mt. Tamalpais, Sugarloaf or Mt. Veeder, we may not feel very connected to that coal-burning region, except to acknowledge Nashville for launching the careers of musical greats from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley.

Give a thought to the people of Harriman, Tenn., who just held their first farmers market last year and, in keeping with their community's temperance roots, didn't even have a liquor store until 1993. These people are struggling to recover from a coal-related disaster that illustrates why it is not enough to put more renewables online. We need to eliminate coal-burning power plants.

Three days before Christmas, the Harriman countryside was flooded with a billion gallons of toxic coal-ash sludge, which escaped violently from a slurry pond said to have contained a 50-year accumulation of coal ash. The grayish mixture containing arsenic, lead, chromium and other heavy metals flooded more than 300 acres of rural Tennessee. Drinking water was poisoned, animals killed, asthma attacks triggered, skin conditions exacerbated and the once-beautiful Emory River turned opaque gray.

There is no such thing as clean coal. It is the most carbon-intensive power generation on earth. Coal is mined by explosives that disfigure mountains, and tunneling that disfigures humans and groundwater courses. Toxic coal-ash is stored in 1,300 slurry ponds throughout the country, leaching poisons and threatening wildlife, human health and drinking-water supplies of nearby communities.

Even if Obama is successful in doubling the country's renewables capacity in the next three years, renewable energy will still represent only a fraction of the power pie chart. About one-third of America's power is generated from coal. California gets power from coal-burning plants owned by the utilities. So this is no time to sing a victory song because renewables are expanding. It's time to eliminate coal-burning plants and stop the eco-social injustices that accompany them.

Like Katrina victims, the people of Harriman and of other towns vulnerable to coal poisoning deserve our civic action. One way is to participate in 100 Days of Action to Power Past Coal. Just launched last week, the PowerPastCoal.org website features ways you can help and a video of the sludge disaster, where even the banjo on the soundtrack sounds plaintive.

 

Music helps us respond to strong feeling. Singer-songwriter Kate Wolf drew her inspiration from the "golden rolling hills of California," while Tina Turner, Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin may have been equally inspired by landscapes in Tennessee, the state where all three were born. What about the kids born there now?

My first action to power past coal is this column, for the children of Tennessee; like all children, they deserve inspiring landscapes, unpoisoned air, clean drinking water and asthma-free lungs. And (even if they are not the next Tina Turner) they can one day join the climate-protection chorus for some victory songs.

But right now we're in solidarity with coal-poisoned communities across the country and throughout the world—hearing a plaintive banjo and singing the beautiful "Tennessee Waltz."



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