Just as a mother makes her child wash his mouth out after telling a lie, one of the worst ecological catastrophes in our country's history is making the coal industry wash off its face, which is full of soot.
Last year, this industry spent $45 million in a deceiving national public relations campaign to sell us the myth that "coal is clean," that it is "America's Energy," almost telling us that this dirty mineral is black gold.
Also last year, the coal and electric industries spent an astonishing $125 million in lobbying against federal legislation promoting clean energy and a cap on global warming pollution.
But this fairy tale collapsed on Dec. 22 along with the impoundment that contained one billion gallons of wet coal sludge, which -- like a tsunami of toxic waste -- buried thousands of acres, many of then inhabited, in Roane County, Tennessee. The sludge had been accumulating for years near the Kingston Fossil Plant, run by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
First, TVA reported that the spill was just half of the real amount, which was the maximum the impoundment was supposed to contain. It also reported that the sludge posed no dangers unless you "eat it."
The truth was that, according to independent tests, the coal sludge contained amounts up to 300 times the legal limits of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. These are the ingredients of a stew with an enormous toxic potential, which can cause cancer, birth defects, and impede both the mental and physical development of children.
But something smelled especially funny in this very sad episode. It turned out that TVA, in its drive to cheapen the costs of operation, failed to reinforce the collapsed impoundment at a cost of $25 million. Instead, now cleaning up the mess could cost hundreds of millions. In 2005, cleaning a sludge spill 63 times smaller cost $37 million.
The storm of indignation triggered by this terrible, and avoidable, catastrophe is causing what the New York Times calls, "The collapse of the clean coal myth." The paper speculates that the spill could finally open the eyes of federal regulators to put a stop to the excesses of the country's coal-fired plants.
"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," opined the Times.
In reality, the Kingston Fossil Plant's catastrophe is just the tip of this black iceberg. The Times quotes Sen. Barbara Boxer as saying that coal combustion in this country generates 130 million tons of coal ash every year, "enough to fill a train of boxcars stretching from Washington, D.C., to Australia."
And where does all that terribly toxic waste end up? In any of the 1,300 coal ash impoundments across the country. The most terrifying part of this horror story is that none of those impoundments are federally regulated, and that the ash could leak its poisons into the drinking water of nearby communities.
In his inaugural speech, President Obama proclaimed that we cannot "consume the world's resources without regard to effect" and that "each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy [...] threaten our planet." He also told us, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility."
The coal and electric industries, however, have been behaving irresponsibly for decades. Each year, coal-fired power plants cause 21,000 hospitalizations, 38,000 heart attacks and 24,000 unnecessary deaths.
But we already have alternatives. Efficiency is one. Each year, in the U.S. we waste the energy equivalent to all that is generated by coal-fired plants. The Obama economic recovery plan calls for heavy investment in clean, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. It would also retrofit two million buildings and 75% of federal facilities to better protect them against the weather.
And this plan would create millions of green jobs in sectors that heavily employ Latino workers. Because of these and many other reasons, coal is dirty. Period.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit www.sierraclub.org/ecocentro