Yes We Did– Now What?

December 28, 2008

Clean Coal Isn’t

Dearest President Obama,

I believe in you. I am awed by your elegance,  your incredible humanity and genuine decency, the way your heritage and upbringing mix so many aspects of the American experience– cream of the crop as well as genuine struggle and loss– in a way we desperately need in our White House. I pray for your safety, your health, your joy and success. Your intelligence, your attitude toward your wife (a woman of considerable personal and professional gifts, and you never, ever allow anyone to ignore or take away from that) and your immediate and extended family, your willingness to look horrifying social issues right in the eye and apply your considerable calm honesty and intellectual and analytical powers to them– heck, I’m awed by how smooth you look whether you’re in a track suit and a ball cap like Chuck D or Russell Simmons, or an Armani suit. I’m awed that you struggle with nicotine addiction. Welcome to the human race.

I’ve had so much to say but haven’t had time to blog– the months from the second-happiest day of my life– the day you were elected (the birth of my little one being the happiest) until now blew by me like a storm wind.  But now I have to speak.

Clean coal isn’t.

I knew this, because I did some serious reading in books by real scientists about our alternatives for energy in the future. Clean coal is a ‘Hail Mary Pass’– we’re years away from it, it isn’t practicable, the ocean cannot tolerate or absorb the byproducts we expect to inject to save our environment– at our current level of CO2, if we simply stopped producing, it would take 80 years for the oceans to get us back to a healthy equilibrium, and you know we’re not going to stop producing.

The horrendous coal ash sludge spill in Roane County Tennessee is the biggest environmental disaster in the Southeast EVER. I graduated high school in 1987 in a neighboring county, and my brother and the mother of my nephew a few years later.  We all returned with our loving extended family in 2002 when I got married at my little Cumberland Plateau Victorian-era Episcopalian church, and again the last two years to vacation with loved ones at the Wilderness Resorts cabins at Station Camp.

The  mother of my almost three year old nephew  is there, meeting with the scientists and coalitions to protect the environment and those of us who need it to live, crying with exhaustion and consciousness of the effect and how little is being done at the end of a long day waiting anxiously at the site for geiger counter readings, begging for fragments of truth that can be used to protect those affected, dealing with officials who first denied any danger whatsoever and now say a dangerous level of a contaminant they refuse to name is present in the water supply, getting detained by police for trying to bring clean water to a trailer park affected by the spill.

These people are being told to boil their water.

You can’t boil out radioactivity, beryllium, arsenic, mercury.

I love you man, and I voted for you and danced a dance of joy made the more joyful by the fact that I live in Alabama, where people once denied the right to vote, who watched their brothers and sisters die for the sake of simple civil rights and human decencies for African Americans, found themselves able to vote for an eminently qualified (first) African American (second, but pretty damn good when you are voting in Alabama).

Clean coal isn’t. When I heard you use the words ‘clean coal’ in the debate my heart just sank. Not that it changed my joy at your election, not one bit. I know your intelligence, moral compass and calm will shine a much-needed light of honesty and scientific reality on this problem and move us toward solutions.

Coal is NOT an alternative energy source. It is a fossil fuel. It is not renewable or sustainable. I  knew this. I knew that we need to go straight to renewable and sustainable– community supported energy resources, depending upon the geography and values and resources available in each local community– smaller scale solar, hydro, wind, even methane from garbage dumps– I knew this.

I knew Clean Coal was an oxymoron– not even worth pursuing.

But I never knew such a  horrible disaster was possible. How cleverly the risks are covered up by the industries and people who profit from fossil fuels!

Please send– or ask outgoing President Bush to send– real scientists and real medical professionals who have treated the sicknesses caused by these levels of contaminants, not puppets of the coal industry, to the scene immediately, and then consult with them at enough length to get a true picture of the consequences of this situation,

Please get the facts, Mr. President, and force them to be released to the public– the exact levels of each contaminant and radioactivity in the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers, the scientific data on the medical outcome for those whose water supply and the very air they breathe– because coal ash is about the consistency of face powder, easily breatheable–are in the path of this spill. Please send all the aid and assistance you can to the people and the land affected by this horrendous disaster.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that the “amount of coal-ash sludge released Monday…was triple what TVA estimated.” The current amount is estimated to be 5.4 million cubic yards, according to the TVA. This is the third estimate released this week, each one more severe than its predecessor.

The Kingston spill is over 40 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, if local news accounts are correct. This is a huge environmental disaster of epic proportions; approximately 525 million gallons of nasty black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Environmentalists said the spill, more than 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, belied the notion of the “clean coal” technology that the industry has spent millions to promote.

The Sierra Club’s Bruce Nilles, writing at DailyKos, notes:

“There are literally hundreds of these sludge impoundments across the United States. As coal has dominated Appalachia, it has left behind a toxic legacy for residents, a legacy that will haunt the region for decades. For example, in Sundial, West Virginia, an elementary school sits just 400 yards downhill from a massive impoundment containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge.”
Greenpeace notes that, like Exxon Valdez, the millions of gallons of coal sludge released Monday could take years to clean up, and some of the damage to the ecosystem could be irreparable.

“If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today,” said Kate Smolski, Senior Legislative Coordinator for Greenpeace.

Smolski added that these local impacts represent only a small fraction of coal’s negative impact.

“The really sad thing about this spill is that it’s only a small example of the damage coal causes,” Smolski added. “Add in global warming, tens of thousands of annual premature deaths from power plant pollution, and hundreds of mountains leveled across Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, and that’s the real picture of coal.”

And as you move forward with energy policy, please read David Steinman’s Safe Trip to Eden, Fueling Our Future: An Introduction to Sustainable Energy by Robert Evans, The Citizen Powered Energy Handbook by Greg Pahl, and The Plot to Save the Planet by Brian Dumaine.

I believe in you man. Don’t let us down.

“So it seems you been runnin in circles
Now you can’t even get to first base
& you feel like the tide has turned against you
Welcome to the human race
So you feel like the gods are out to get you
You feel like you’ve fallen from grace
& you’d run again if they’d only let you
Welcome to the human race
Welcome to the human race
So your prophets of finance have fallen
On their collective proverbial face
And you hear muffled voices callin
Welcome to the human race
You made a killin dealin real estate at NASA
Sellin cemetery plots in outer space
Til some fallin coffins crashed upon your doorstep
Welcome to the human race
Welcome to the human race
Open up your heart…

So you sold your ocean home ain’t that a pity
And your mermaids disappeared without a trace
Now you comb the streets of sandcastle city
Welcome to the human raceWelcome to the human race
Now sometimes the truth is hard to handle
But lately it’s much easier to face
We’ll just write it off as just another scandal
Welcome to the human race
Welcome to the human race
Welcome to the human race
Open up your heart”

Timbuk 3

You can hear this hauntingly lovely and timely song from the 80’s at


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