"A Tale of Two Dickensian Disasters: Coal and Tar"
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Right now, it’s mostly the worst of times for the environment — and hence the health and well-being of current and future generations. David Sassoon of the must-read climate blog SolveClimate has a Dickensian tale I’m reprinting it its entirety below — and what could be more Dickensian than coal and tar!
Coal ash deposits in the USA are now under renewed scrutiny after a giant spill just before Christmas released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge into Tennessee waterways. Water tests near the spill from the Kingston Fossil Plant showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders. The spill muddied the waters in the Emory river and is flowing into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
So now a big question mark hangs over the hundreds of coal plants all across the country which store their fly ash in unlined embankments and ponds — like the one that failed last week. Most are situated near rivers that supply water needed by the coal plants to operate.
The NY Times reported that in the US, coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year. It’s the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste, and it’s storage and handling is unregulated. Who knew?
It is yet another measure of the high price of addiction to fossil fuels, which is not only polluting the air and warming the earth, but fouling the nation’s terrestrial and aquatic environment as well. The Tennessee coal spill is a wake up call not only for the coal industry, but the oil industry as well, and not only for America but for Canada, too.
Both nations, still in pursuit of endless supplies of fossil energy, are collaborating on the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands whose byproduct will be spills like the one in Tennessee, only on steroids.
In Alberta, visible from outer space, are 23 squares miles of unstable, unregulated and leaking man-made “tailings ponds” holding the toxic leavings of the mining process. A dam breach is only a matter of time.
Required reading on this subject is Andrew Nikiforuk’s new book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, recently published to wide acclaim in Canada and set for US release in March. In this context, one chapter in particular called “The Ponds” is of direct and chilling relevance:
…there is no denying that the world’s biggest energy project has spawned one of the world’s most fantastic concentrations of toxic waste, producing enough sludge every day (400 million gallons) to fill 720 Olympic pools….
The ponds are truly a wonder of geotechnical engineering. Made from earth stripped off the top of open-pit mines, they rise an average of 270 feet above the forest floor like strange, flat-topped pyramids. By now, the ponds hold more than four decades worth of contaminated water, sand and bitumen…..
The ponds are a byproduct of bad design and industry’s profligate water abuse. Of the twelve barrels of water needed to make on barrel of bitumen, approximately three barrels become mudlike tailings….
Perhaps the biggest enviromental risk is an accidental breach. Earthquakes and extreme weather events can make a rubble of even the best-engineered dykes and could cause a domino-like failure of other nearby ponds….
Engineers and ecologists agree that the tailings ponds pose a substantial risk to Canada’s largest river basin….
For now leaks from the ponds remain a constant challenge….most tar sands tailings ponds seep so badly that they’ve created toxic wetlands near their bases.
The ponds became world famous earlier this year when 500 migrating ducks landed on one of them. As Nikiforuk recounts, “Many of the migrating visitors were buffleheads, keen divers that slipped under the water and never resurfaced.” It wasn’t long before the Prime Minister was apologizing. But of course, nothing much has changed. The tailings ponds continue to grow at a daily pace that is mind-boggling.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, the clean-up of the toxic coal ash is continuing. But let’s not kid ourselves — that’s not the real disaster, merely a symptom of the larger ongoing disaster we’ve been ignoring for decades that has suddenly erupted into public view.
Our historic and continuing reliance on fossil energy is creating a stream of waste — in the air, on the land and in the water — that is already drowning us in our own filth.
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