Friday, December 26, 2008

TVA's Toxic Coal Ash Disaster Impact May Last Years

The nearly 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash which surged across hundreds of acres in Roane County and into local waterways this week will have an unknowable impact on lives for an unknown time.

There are no regulations in place to document what deadly materials go into these lagoons - despite pleas for years for unified national standards. Much of the reason TVA has not been able to define the dangers of this spill is because they didn't know themselves what was in the lagoon nor were they even sure of the total amount of materials which was stored in the site.

Sue Sturgis reports at Facing South about the testimony presented to a congressional hearing in June from attorney Lisa Evans which was a clear warning about the inevitable effects of not regulating the hazardous waste created from burning coal:

he warned that the federal government's broken pledge to regulate disposal of the potentially dangerous material threatened the health and safety of communities across the country.

Speaking before a June 10 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources titled "How Should the Federal Government Address the Health and Environmental Risks of Coal Combustion Waste?," Evans pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in its Regulatory Determination on Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels published in 2000 that federal standards for disposal of coal combustion waste were needed to protect public health and the environment.

The federal failure to regulate the waste has put 23 states -- including Tennessee -- in a special bind, since their statutes have "no more stringent" provisions prohibiting them from enacting standards stricter than those found in federal law. Without federal action, those states can't regulate coal combustion waste disposal beyond the few obviously inadequate safeguards that now exist."

Sturgis goes on to report that highly radioactive materials created in the burning process can be deadly:

" ...
waste containing potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium -- impurities typically found in coal.

While the company (TVA) is downplaying the hazardous nature of the material, telling the New York Times that it's "inert" and "not toxic or anything," an assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the risk of getting cancer from coal ash lagoons is 10,000 times greater than safety standards allow."

Months of cleanup are ahead, and once the currently wet spill begins to dry, then the toxic materials turn into dust which is then transmitted by airflow.

Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, writes in a press release:

SACE believes that TVA, TDEC and the EPA should be erring on the side of caution and encouraging residents and others at the site to avoid bodily contact with the ash, which when dried can become airborne. Along with the lead and thallium officially found in the ash, there is a strong probability that levels of arsenic, cadmium and potentially mercury will be found.”

Dr. Smith continued by stressing that safety precautions should be taken by residents in the affected area.

“This is clearly one of the most severe environmental disasters of East Tennessee,” Smith said. “There are multiple pathways in which people can become potentially affected by these heavy metals, including bodily contact, drinking water, air pathways and aquatic wildlife and fish, and we feel that appropriate warnings should be expressed to ensure the safety of Tennessee residents.”

State bloggers, such as Enclave, have noted a massive absence of government response to this disaster:

The silence of Tennessee's elected officials indicates to me that TVA is actually in the cat bird's seat, and they are in little danger of being held accountable for these events. I fully expect Senators Corker and Alexander (as well as Governor Phil Bredesen) to get behind a new initiative under the pretense of clean-up to convert and to expand TVA's plant and political power in Roane County."

From Christian Grantham at Nashville Is Talking:

Actually, if you read some of the reports about the smaller coal waste spill in 2000, you'll see the damage spread over weeks through at least a hundred miles of tributaries and streams. TVA says it's taking precautions to prevent this from entering the Tennessee River, but anyone with a brain can see that short of building a dam, that will be impossible.

What it appears TVA is focusing more on (and you can see this in their own online accounts, news reports and releases) is clearing the way for more coal to reach the plant. The troubling fact that TVA is making a calculated decision to use their assets to clear the way for more coal rather than using 100% of their assets to prevent further ecological damage is noted."

From a recent Roane County newspaper report, the Kingston Plant has been slowly converting to a new process to 'scrub' waste emissions which will result in the creation of gypsum ponds, however:

We want to make it clear we’re spending $500 million to clean up the environment. It is not a bad thing, but it is clearly a visible thing,” TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said.
Officials had hoped to find a market, such as drywall, for the gypsum byproduct of the new scrubber. The slowing economy has ground those possibilities to a halt. “They (the marketplace) have more gypsum than they know what to do with,” said Martocci."

In another recent report from the Roane County News, business designed to create cleaner-burning fuel are just a losing proposition as oil prices - for the moment - have fallen:

The shuttering of Wright’s company, Blue Sky Biodiesel, won’t wreck the local economy. He had just three employees including himself, but the demise of the business has left him financially and emotionally scarred.
“I’m just kind of down in the dumps right now,” Wright said. “I tapped into my savings in order to make this work.
Wright said his business wasn’t just about profit.Wright said he felt like he was on the front lines of the much-touted fight to energy independence, whipping up batches of biodiesel for use in diesel engines.
“None of us are rich,” he said. “We were all just people with ideas trying to get things done.”

Seems the powers that be are slow to seek changes, and seek instead to continue to rely on the fictions of "clean coal technology" and unreal hopes that fossil fuel - regardless of economic costs and environmental destruction - is a magical creation which serves only to fulfill wishes and dreams.

NBC news did finally lead their nightly report from the scene in the Harriman community on Friday:

Toxic Spill Threatens East Tennessee

Writers in the blogging world have been hard at work gathering and reporting information from the enormous environmental disaster which saw millions and millions of cubic yards of toxic coal sludge from TVA's Kingston power plant bring destruction across the Roane County countryside and into East Tennessee waterways. (NOTE: Please see my latest update here.)

The first estimate from TVA claimed just over a million cubic yards had roared across the area following the collapse of a dike wall holding back the coal ash waste. Today, they tripled that amount, again "estimating" the total was more like 5.4 million cubic yards.

Some of the best coverage can be found at Enclave - who has been hard at work gathering details, including how the major networks and cable news television totally missed the story and then decided it was newsworthy after all. He also notes United Mountain Defense Report which reports accidents at the site have been common in recent months:

It maintains that Kingston residents told their correspondents that TVA dealt with leaks in the ash pond wall in 2004, 2006, and a month and a half ago. TVA officials originally speculated that recent excess rain and abnormally low temperatures were possible causes of the breach."

The NYTimes reports:

Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. But with no official word on the dangers of the sludge in Tennessee, displaced residents spent Christmas Eve worried about their health and their property, and wondering what to do.

Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority: “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”

Mr. Francis said contaminants in water samples taken near the spill site and at the intake for the town of Kingston, six miles downstream, were within acceptable levels.

But a draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.

Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter federal controls of coal ash, but backed away in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials. At the time, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of power utilities, estimated that the industry would have to spend up to $5 billion in additional cleanup costs if the substance were declared hazardous. Since then, environmentalists have urged tighter federal standards, and the E.P.A. is reconsidering its decision not to classify the waste as hazardous.

Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps.

For instance, in Anne Arundel County, Md., between Baltimore and Annapolis, residential wells were polluted by heavy metals, including thallium, cadmium and arsenic, leaching from a sand-and-gravel pit where ash from a local power plant had been dumped since the mid-1990s by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company."

At the Knoxville News Sentinel, blogger Michael Silence has more, as does the KNS' Jack Lail.

RoaneViews writers are also on the story.

There are many questions about current safety, officials ever-changing stories and what -if any - health issues are being aggressively pursued. Since TVA's CEO just earned a record multi-million dollar salary, let's see if he is worth it. As Senator Lamar Alexander told the press in October when news of the massive pay raise was made:

The TVA board should be sensitive to keeping its costs down, especially at a time when Tennesseans are hurting,” he said. “But TVA is the largest utility in the country and it’s got to recruit competent people to run the agency, including its nuclear plants, and it need pay them a competitive wage in order to keep them."

Many people are truly in peril today due to this massive disaster, Mr. Senator. And let's hope like hell competence is the least of their virtues.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Annual Christmas Music Collection, Part Three

Here is the third and final installment for Christmas music 2008 (Check out parts One and Two).

I hope you've enjoyed the tunes - and I did try and not pick out too many over-played holiday tunes. This third installment starts Elvis and moves on to Lisa Loeb and the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, and there is one from the unstoppable Bootsy Collins and concludes one of my favorites from James Brown.

Merry Christmas to one and all and please oh please have yourself a Merry Christmas and a Fine 2009.

SeeqPod - Playable Search

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Financial Bailout vs. The Auto Industry

Hilzoy makes some points which seem to elude not only Congress, but many average Americans:

The financial executives helped cause the present meltdown. Auto workers did not.

* The financial executives run their firms, and are responsible for their troubles. Auto workers and their union, by contrast, just got themselves a good deal by bargaining with management. That's their prerogative. I don't see that they're any more to blame for the problems of the Big Three than people who accept unduly large cash back bonuses on their new cars would be, had the Big Three miscalculated and given away more in cash-back bonuses than they could afford.

* Financial executives have just destroyed a tremendous amount of value and ruined the global economy. Auto workers have been busy creating useful things.

* In exchange for destroying value, financial executives get paid a whole lot more than auto workers. Orders of magnitude more. They even get multi-million dollar performance bonuses when their firms lose money! And their benefits are a lot more cushy: not just good health care but private jets and chauffeurs!

* Punishing financial executives helps reduce moral hazard. Punishing auto workers does not.

Honestly: what sense does it make to stick it to a bunch of auto workers while letting the financial executives off scot-free? How can Richard Shelby get all upset about the fact that some blue-collar workers have, gasp, health care, and not about the fact that financial executives, on whom we have spent a lot more money than the Big Three ever asked for, get financial planners and chauffeurs? Just imagine the furious oratory we might have heard had the UAW succeeded in negotiating benefits like the ones people get at Goldman Sachs. (I'll bet chauffeurs would help auto workers concentrate more on their jobs...)

For the reasons given above, I think that we should stick it to the bankers and hedge fund managers, and not to the UAW. However, I'd be happy with a single standard uniformly applied. rok for dean at dKos has a good idea:

"In 1950, the average pay of an S&P 500 CEO was less than 30 times that of an average U.S. worker; by 1980, prior to the "Reagan Revolution, the average pay of the S&P 500 CEO was approximately 50 times higher than that of an average U.S worker. But by 2007, the average pay of an S&P 500 CEO had soared to more than 350 times as much as that of an average U.S. worker.

This is both immoral and unsustainable in a democracy. By way of comparison, in Europe, an average CEO only makes 22 times as much as an average worker, and in Japan, only 17 times as much.

If America wants to be competitive again, we need to reduce CEO pay to a level comparable to CEO pay in Europe and Japan. I know exactly how to accomplish this feat. The UAW should agree to immediately lower U.S. union worker pay to a level equal to the level paid by their non-union, non-American competitors. In return, auto CEO’s must agree to permanently lower their compensation to only 20 times that of an average union worker.

Once this has been accomplished, Congress must move to apply the same pay standards to AIG and all of the financial institutions that took one penny of taxpayer money from the TARP fund."

And what of foreign automakers, like Toyota?

"On Monday, Toyota said it expected a loss during the fiscal year of 150 billion yen, or $1.7 billion, in its group operating revenue, the amount it earns from its auto operations. Toyota said that would be its first annual operating loss since 1938, a year after the company was founded.

The loss would also be a huge reversal from the 2.3 trillion yen, or $28 billion, in operating profit Toyota earned last fiscal year. The company, which has been neck and neck with General Motors to be the world’s largest vehicle-maker, said it still expected to eke out a narrow net profit in the current fiscal year, which ends March 31.

The company, which just a few months ago seemed unstoppable after eight consecutive years of record profits, said it suffered from plunging vehicle sales not only in North America but even in once-promising markets like India and China, which many had hoped would prove immune to the United States malaise.

“The change in the world economy is of a magnitude that comes once every hundred years,” Toyota’s president, Katsuaki Watanabe, told a news conference in Nagoya, Japan, near the company’s Toyota City headquarters. “We are facing an unprecedented emergency.”