The Biotic Woman: The Dirty Politics of Coal

Brittany Shoot
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Let’s get something out of the way right now. My great grandpa, a mean, abusive old man named Everett, was a coal miner. So were other members of my family alongside and before him. (Everyone after him became a minister or worked for Ford in Detroit.) All the relatives on that side of my mother’s family lived and worked in West Virginia for generations. I grew up hearing stories about how before grandpa was allowed inside the house, he had to change out of his coveralls in the side yard shed and hose off. He did not die of black lung, but even if he’d had it, he would have lived forever. Everyone in my family does.

Coal mining is a filthy business, and I have no nostalgia for the environmental havoc it wreaks. The damage to people working in coal processing is bad enough, but the larger environmental complications from leaking coal ash from landfills and retention ponds are seemingly incalculable. Working in equal disgusting parts, coal ash is made up of fly ash from chimneys and bottom ash from coal furnaces. Coal ash contains an incredible amount of toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury that cause serious health problems for adults and can lead to severe complications during pregnancy. For you pop culture junkies, fly ash also contains, among other horrific toxins, chromium VI, that carcinogenic crap Erin Brockovich helped fight in real life, as documented in the movie bearing her name. Not surprising, these kinds of health issues affect some of the poorest people in the country—often folks without access to health care or without the option to pick up and move away from the affected areas.

Perhaps that’s why I’m particularly offended when I see commercials like these:

General Electric has been promoting “clean coal” for years, with varying types of ridiculous ads aimed at making us think coal can not only be clean; it can be beautiful! Like a model in a coal mine!

Wrong. Here’s a much more accurate set-up, brought to you by and directed by the Coen Brothers.

Here’s a reality check the next time someone wants to tell you about clean coal: They’re still cleaning up the biggest fly ash spill in U.S., which occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in December 2008. A dam holding back tons of slurry burst in the middle of the night, dumping more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry into Tennessee River tributaries. The sludge leveled entire communities with a four-foot-deep layer of coal ash slurry and killed off an unbelievable number of fish living in the rivers. The spill has been said to be one hundred times as large as the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

Despite this obvious example and well-known widespread problems coal ash spills can cause, West Virginia governor Joe Machin said last month that the Environmental Protection Agency should halt plans to regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Isn’t it the governor’s job to look out of his constituents, not advocate for policies that could harm them?

Last week, the Christian Science Monitor reported that contamination from coal ash waste is even worse than the EPA has expected. For anyone who has ever lived beyond city infrastructure, you know, for example, how harmful it is to have sludge contaminating your groundwater. CMS reports:

“While the catastrophic spill at TVA’s Kingston plant has become the poster child for the damage that coal ash can wreak, there are hundreds of leaking sites throughout the United States where the damage is deadly, but far less conspicuous,” said Jeff Stant, who led the investigation for the Environmental Integrity Project, in a statement.

I’m not sure which part of the coal mess is more upsetting: that so many people seem totally unaware of the ripple effects of coal mining or that elected officials work against efforts to protect some of the nation’s poorest citizens from environmental hazards.

Further reading:

United Mountain Defense (my personal fave, includes detailed info for contacting the EPA)

Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network

Still unresolved, Tennessee coal-ash spill only one EPA hurdle, The Washington Post

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

yes, thank you

...for posting this. We have family in TN/WVA and it was pretty horrifying that, out here on the left coast, we never heard a peep about this from media (aside from one mention on NPR, iirc). The coal industry leaves wreckage and waste on all sides, for those who work in it, and for those who live near or on top of it; not to mention the mountaintop-removal mining that screws up natural drainage and creates things like this slurrylanche.

You're right that when the dams don't burst, and the slurry ponds go unnoticed, it's got consequences that are just as bad - most go uninspected by the EPA, and the waste can leach into water supplies, with cancer-causing deadly chemicals like arsenic. I think it's obvious why Manchin does not want the toxic-waste classification on coal ash - his office is being fed by the industry to starve and sicken the people.

I almost can't believe GE

I almost can't believe GE used "16 Tons" in that commercial! Didn't anyone in their marketing department bother to listen to the lyrics??

I'm from Central Pennsylvania and one of my paternal great-grandfathers worked in the mines. My maternal grandparents used coal to heat their home until the early '90s (and to this day there's still a patina of coal dust on things stored in the corners of the basement). When industry tries to push "clean coal" i can't help but laugh. There is <b>nothing</b> clean about coal.

Another problem with coal, sometimes overlooked: <a href="" title="article on mine fires @ Smithsonian Magazine">mine fires</a> -- <a href=",_Pennsylvania" title="Centralia PA @ Wikipedia">Centralia, PA</a>, for example. They spew carbon dioxide into the air and are a danger to anyone living near them.


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