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Sierra Club
Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet
RAW: Uncooked Truth, Beyond Belief 

Issue #277
Jan 12, 2009
King Coal Has No Clothes

If there was any remaining doubt that coal is about the farthest possible thing from clean, it was dispelled by the disastrous coal sludge spill in Tennessee that happened over the holidays.  The spill destroyed houses and has covered a swath of rural Tennessee in over a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. It has not only exposed the oft-hidden dangers of the coal industry, but also the lax government oversight of one of our country’s dirtiest industries.

A new Center for American Progress report showed that the coal industry's infamous front group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, spent a staggering $45 million last year on its deceptive "America's Power" campaign touting the benefits of so-called "clean coal." In addition, the coal and electric utility industries spent a jaw-dropping $125 million in the first 9 months of last year lobbying against federal legislation promoting clean energy and a cap on global warming pollution.

While it has plenty to spend on ads touting so-called "clean coal," King Coal refuses to puts its money where its mouth is. Even as it spends millions to run ads implying that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is here or just around the corner, the industry refuses to spend much of anything to turn its overheated rhetoric into reality. And it's not for lack of funds. The 48 companies that make up the ACCCE front group pulled down a combined $57 billion in profits in 2007 alone, yet over a period of several years they have invested just $3.5 billion in research into CCS.

And what did the famously loquacious industry mouthpiece have to say about the sludge spill? Not a single word.

Deception over the airwaves is one thing, but deception on the ground that puts the public health at risk is far worse. Despite initial assurances by government officials that the toxic coal sludge posed no danger, it later became clear that the sludge was contaminating vast areas with a toxic brew of arsenic, mercury, selenium, and other highly dangerous substances. 

It also turns out that the Tennessee Valley Authority is trying to do business on the cheap. After ignoring problems with the now-breached impoundment that could've been fixed for just $25 million, the utility's ratepayers will now foot the bill for a cleanup that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  For example, a 2005 coal sludge spill in Pennsylvania that was 63 times smaller than the Tennessee spill cost $37 million to clean up.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, there's a mere 1300 other unregulated, unmonitored coal ash impoundments across the country. 

RAW is the Sierra Club's weekly e-mail update in which our team of Sierra Club correspondents bring you humorous insights about environmental stories you won't want to believe.

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