The Myth of Clean Coal: Rest in Peace

It just goes to show you that even $10-20 million worth of advertising  won't buy you love.

The "clean coal" myth was swamped this December and January by the coal ash spills in Tennessee and Alabama.   Here are just some of the views on how the image of "clean coal" is now in tatters.

Hot off the presses this very morning  is a scorching editorial - "Collapse of the Clean Coal Myth" -- in the New York Times:

"A month of negative news for the Tennessee Valley Authority could lead to positive changes in national policy, including federal regulation of toxic coal wastes and new legal constraints on coal-fired power plants. More broadly, the authority's recent travails may help persuade the public that coal is nowhere near as 'clean' as a high-priced industry advertising campaign makes it out to be. 

In December, hundreds of acres of Roane County in eastern Tennessee were buried under a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge after the collapse of one of the T.V.A.'s containment ponds. It was an accident waiting to happen and an alarm bell for Congress and federal regulators. Taken together, the coal ash disaster and Judge Thornburg's ruling did much to undercut the coal industry's cheery 'clean coal' campaign, whose ads would have us believe that low-polluting coal is here or just around the corner ... Coal is certainly an important fuel, providing just over half of the nation's electricity. And progress has been made: new coal-fired plants are cleaner than old ones, and older plants that have been required under the Clean Air Act to install pollution controls are cleaner than the many plants that have managed to escape the law's reach. But coal remains an inherently dirty fuel, and a huge contributor to not only ground-level pollution - including acid rain and smog - but also global warming. The sooner the country understands that, the closer it will be to mitigating the damage."


In a major article titled "Exposing The Myth of Clean Coal Power," Time magazine reported:

"The 'clean coal' campaign was always more PR than reality - currently there's no economical way to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal, and many experts doubt there ever will be. But now the idea of clean coal might be truly dead, buried beneath the 1.1 billion gallons of water mixed with toxic coal ash that on Dec. 22 burst through a dike next to the Kingston coal plant in the Tennessee Valley and blanketed several hundred acres of land, destroying nearby houses. The accident - which released 100 times more waste than the Exxon Valdez disaster - has polluted the waterways of Harriman, Tenn., with potentially dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic and mercury, and left much of the town uninhabitable."


The Tennessee and Alabama disasters resonated across the United States.  A Las Vegas Sun editorial put it this way:

"... there are more than 1,300 dump sites for coal ash in the United States containing untold millions of tons of sludge. The one in Tennessee covered 100 acres and had waste piled 65 feet high, the result of 50 years of operation at the power plant. Most of the sites are near rivers or other waterways because they need water to operate. That should send a chill down the spine of anyone living downstream. The toxins in coal ash have been known to leach into the soil and the ground water. These coal ash disasters should be a wake-up call for America. First, the federal government should regulate and monitor coal ash dumps to ensure public health. Second, the nation should be moving quickly away from coal-fired power plants. Despite what its proponents say, there is nothing clean about coal power."


The Tennessee coal ash spill got much more attention than the later eco-disaster in Alabama, but feelings ran strong in the latter state, too.  As a columnist for the Tuscaloosa News pointed out:

"... an environmental organization called Reality began to run a clever television commercial in which a guy walks around a barren landscape acting as if he were a clean coal engineer and talking about how impressive all this "technology" around him is, while at the same time slipping in a line about how in "reality" burning coal is still a major threat to the environment.  The coal industry's counter punch was to cherry pick some lines from an old speech by president-elect Barack Obama about how 'if we can put a man on the moon,' we ought to be able to find a way to burn coal cleanly.  Then came the horrific burst in that Tennessee Valley Authority dam holding back a billion gallons of coal sludge, which is a witch's brew of ash and other by-products produced by burning coal and containing many toxic elements. The story of this disaster keeps getting worse every day and I am sure has brought home to many just how much a pipe dream "clean coal" is at this time, even if the smokestack emissions could miraculously be purified. And remember, there are such holding lakes around most coal-burning electricity plants scattered all over the country. Wonder what the coal industry's next PR move will be?"


"Clean coal" also took a real pounding in the blogosphere.   This posting on TheDailyGreen was typical:

"Will TVA and its Kingston, Tenn., power plant become synonymous with an environmental disaster on the scale that the Exxon Valdez is?  It should. The accident highlights the serious, but often hidden, risks of coal. The coal industry has been launching an advertising blitz in recent years, particularly during the presidential campaign, lauding the fossil fuel for keeping America's lights on, and for the promise of "clean coal." ... The air pollution from coal-fired power plants is the largest contributor to America's greenhouse gas emissions, its acid rain and much of the nation's smog. Smog, lest anyone forget, leads to asthma and other lung diseases, heart attacks and premature death. The spill highlights the need for the American economy to evolve. We have to do more with less energy - an easy challenge, given the wastefulness in our energy consumption today. And we have to generate our electricity with clean sources, like the sun, wind and tides. In the meantime, government has to get serious about regulating the power plants currently in operation so that - at a minimum - they safely contain their wastes."


One of the more provocative headlines - "The Day 'Clean Coal' Died" - could be found at ClimateProgress:

"Three days later, the traditional media has finally picked up the shocking toxic coal sludge story ... It was on NBC last night (among other networks). Elliott Negin of the Union of Concerned Scientists explained:  "This disaster shows that the term 'clean coal' is an oxymoron. It's akin to saying 'safe cigarette.' Clean coal doesn't exist.'...Even as the authority played down the risks, the spill reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Similar ponds and mounds of ash exist at hundreds of coal plants around the nation .. Perhaps everyone will see finally 'clean coal' for what it is - claptrap."


How bad is the situation for coal right now?

It seems clear that the power plant operators using today's dirty coal are every bit as vulnerable as the myth of "clean coal" itself. 

Sitting nearby the Tennessee disaster site, Gail Kerr, a columnist at the Tennessean, noted:

"Getting access to board members, documents or information from (the) [Tennessee Valley Authority] (TVA) is akin to pulling a sore tooth out of an angry gorilla's mouth. Those days are over. They were washed away three days before Christmas when 5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic sludge and ash flowed out of a breached holding tank at a coal-powered plant in Kingston into a scenic East Tennessee area, destroying three homes. The image that sticks is a Katrina-like aerial photo of a home filled to the brim with muck, the front porch Christmas garland dripping with it. Since that day, we've learned a lot. TVA rejected costly repairs to the ponds holding the ash left behind from burning coal. There had been other leaks. This week, TVA released another type of sludge into the scenic Ocoee River, a place where every church youth group member has gone whitewater rafting. Another leak happened Friday, at an Alabama coal-burning site."

The devastating impacts of coal - from mining to burning to disposal - can not, and should not be hidden behind an industry-smokescreen. Learn more about what NRDC is doing to expose the reality about coal - and claims about being clean.