Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Coal Disaster


By Howard Switzer

It's being called a huge environmental disaster but, unlike Katrina, the TVA coal ash pond dam collapse disaster was not caused by the environment. Rather, this disaster was caused by the continued use of a dirty, poisonous fuel used in an outdated and inefficient mode of energy production -- coal. Earthen dams holding the toxic materials from burning coal fail all the time.

While several homes were damaged by the collapse and no injuries were reported, one can expect the toxic mix of arsenic, lead, barium, chromium and manganese -- the toxic materials concentrated in the ash -- to have a lasting effect on the health of those living downstream.

Coal kills. It has a long history of doing so. Today it is estimated that over 64 million Americans breathe air that has so much particle pollution that it puts their health at risk. Coal is estimated to cause 25,000 deaths in the U.S. every year from diseases caused by breathing particles and soot from coal emissions. Besides the microscopic particles linked to asthma and heart disease there are other health effects as well as the forest killing acid rain.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollution in the U.S. and they are the largest contributor of hazardous air pollutants overall. Startling new research shows that one out of every six women of childbearing age in the U.S. may have blood mercury concentrations high enough to damage a developing fetus -- putting 630,000 babies at risk.

Coal has killed many more Americans than any terrorist and yet we tend to turn our heads or at best briefly note the event before we move on; apparently unable to face the inconvenient truth. King coal is powerful and has been whispering in our ears all of our lives just so that we ignore its crimes. It’s time people awoke and insisted on clean energy, really clean energy. It's also time we reduced our appetite for electricity and fossil fuels.

Now is the time to truly develop solar energy. We have no more time to waste. The scientists can continue to study how to make electricity from the sun ever more efficiently, but there is much more that we can do now that does not require a rocket scientist, mathematician or an economist to figure out. It's the stuff we as communities can do.

A truly sustainable solution that leaves fossil fuels behind will require a considerable redesign in the way we do things. We already have the underutilized technologies required for simply and economically producing liquid and gas fuels from plant, animal and human wastes -- ethanol and methane. Every community should be making sure they are collecting, retaining, slowing and cleaning whatever flow of water they may be blessed with. We can clean our waterways by utilizing water cleaning vegetation that turns out to be the very best fuel crops.

We can grow our food locally as humans have for 4 million years -- a relatively simple transformation that would take us a long way toward better health and security as well. By building greenhouses a diverse diet can be grown pretty much anywhere year around. This can also allow a more horticultural and intensive organic food production system and provide lots of jobs.

An important part of what makes such a system sustainable is that it is community based. By hooking up the waste loops between our animal and plant food production systems with our clean water and fuel production systems we can create sustainable symbiotic relationships that can provide for our future generations and finally be done with the disaster that is coal.
Switzer is a columnist and an ecological architect who helps people with buildings of earth and straw.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 2/09