The Tennessee Valley Authority is the country’s largest utility — it generates electricity, regulates the Tennessee River, and is a huge employer. It also just got a huge black eye and gave a huge black eye to “clean coal.”
Of course there is not and never was any such thing as “clean coal.” Coal is a fossilized hydrocarbon which contains a variety of metals and organic compounds leached into the rock while it was forming over the course of aeons of subterranean pressure. It very commonly contains various kinds of sulfur and arsenic compounds, which are released into the air when the coal is burned. “Clean coal” is a way of burning the coal which generally leaves the contaminants in the ash and sludge left over after burning or occasionally in filters or scrubbers in the smokestacks. The TVA, the world’s largest handler of “clean coal,” handles this by mixing the ash with river water and letting it settle into sludge in the bottom of artificial ponds before draining the water into tributary rivers of the Tennessee.
Well, that process suffered a serious setback today in Harriman, a small city in Roane County, not all that far from where The Wife and I used to live, and not far from where my folks are moving away from The Estate At Louisville to seek better opportunities for themselves. The dam holding back these artificial ponds burst today and 2.6 million cubic yards of the sludge dumped out on the valley below, swamping the houses of the people unfortuante enough to have lived downstream from the ponds and to have relied on the assurances of the TVA that they were safe. Check out this video from the Nashville Tennessean:
Yuck! That one house is astonishing — it’s one of those nice big estate houses on the big farms that people own out in the country there. Now, it’s buried up to the roof of the porch — which on the downslope side of the house is probably something like fifteen to twenty feet from the ground — in heavy metal-rich coal sludge. But the image of this flood of sludge, making its way all the way to the river and the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans, Georgians, and Alabamans — is horrific. I hope they clean it up soon, but all indications are that this is the result of struggling and struggling will continue.