President-elect Barack Obama could make an extraordinary statement this Friday, when he visits a factory in Bedford Heights, Ohio, that produces parts for wind turbines, as part of his American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan: En route, he could easily fly over the Tennessee Valley Authority's disaster zone, and a coal mining community in West Virginia working to install those very wind turbines in place of strip mining in Appalachia.
Seventy-five years and an emerging depression and energy crisis after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the TVA into existence as an innovative solution to new energy demands, Obama's fly over of the TVA's series of coal ash and sediment pond breakages -- the worst environmental disaster in American history -- would be a symbolic wake up call for an immediate shift in our energy and environmental policies. It would also be a stirring reminder to our citizenry that the incoming White House will not allow this colossal environmental and civil rights blunder to happen again.
In truth, the TVA disaster is an undeniable example that our country's network of jurassic-era coal-fired plants and fly ash ponds is not simply a Tennessee problem, or a coalfield problem: It is a national problem. Over 1,300 other coal ash piles around the country slump during these winter and spring months of freezing and flooding like calamities waiting to happen. Far from the image of their remote locations, hundreds of coal-fired plants and coal mounds reside within thirty minutes of half of the American population.
While further reports of leakages and coal train accidents continued this week and 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge seeped even deeper into eastern Tennessee aquifers and air like a still misunderstood plague, the incoming Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson poignantly called for an assessment of the coal ash ponds but also praised coal as "a vital resource" for the country in her Senate confirmation hearing. Department of Energy designate Stephen Chu echoed his newfound support of coal as a "great natural resource."
Meanwhile, the initial draft of the Democrat's stimulus package includes $2.4 billion for carbon capture and storage investment for coal-fired plants -- an extraction industry-sponsored technological dream that has been roundly dismissed by scientists and energy experts as prohibitively expensive, fraught with insurmountable storage and safety problems, and light years behind in feasible implementation.
The clash between the recent Obama administration's statements and the incoming images from TVA and the Appalachian region, on the heels of a new study on the rise of black lung among coal miners, have not been lost on the business community. "Big coal is on a roll in the nation's capital," began a Wall Street Journal article this week. As a recent internal memo released by the public relations firm in charge of the reported $55 million "Clean Coal" campaign ruse declared: "Even in a communication-saturated environment we achieved, even exceeded, our wildest expectations (and we believe those of our client!)."
According to Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, "The industry's indiscriminate attempts to market "clean coal" are starting to look like the tobacco industry's efforts to sell "safe cigarettes." In face of the TVA disaster, he added, "No public relations strategy can hide the dozens of plants the industry is still trying to build, using old technologies that would add more than 150 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere -- the amount of global warming pollution created by more than 20 million Hummers. And it certainly can't hide the back-to-back spills of toxic coal ash at TVA's plants only weeks after the election."
President-elect Obama and his administration need to have a reckoning with dirty coal's realities.
On his flight to Ohio, Obama will also pass over the scores of communities throughout the Appalachian coalfields -- in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia -- that have been dealing with contaminated water from coal mining waste for decades, thanks to the tragedy of mountaintop removal strip mining. Obama's flyover of West Virginia would not only draw attention to the 11th hour ruling by the EPA last month, which effectively removed any barrier to dumping the mining waste into waterways. He could also see the potential for those wind turbines in the Coal River Mountain area, where local citizens are attempting to install an industrial wind farm over devastating mountaintop removal.
Mountaintop removal, like the TVA, is not only an Appalachian problem. When President-elect Obama flips on the light switch for the first time at the White House next week, he should remember that his electricity, courtesy of the Potomac Electric Power company, derives from coal-fired plants operating on coal stripped from the very Appalachian mountains that have been destroyed by mountaintop removal.