The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska shocked Americans into regulating the oil shipping industry, and caused us to cast a wary eye on all offshore oil development. Double-hulled tankers are now the rule, not the exception, and the standards for oil production are tighter, if imperfect. Exxon also faced decades of criminal and civil litigation, leading to a multimillion-dollar payout to fishermen and others affected by the spill, two decades later (though the final payout was a fraction of that ordered by lower courts, thanks to a 2008 industry-friendly ruling by the Supreme Court).
So what will result from the Tennessee Valley Authority's massive coal ash spill, which has blanketed hundreds of acres near Kingston, Tenn., with a sludgy and likely toxic mess? (USA Today has the latest on the fear inspired by the spill, while the New York Times details test results showing high levels of toxic contaminants in streams near the spill.)
Will TVA and its Kingston, Tenn., power plant become synonymous with an environmental disaster on the scale that the Exxon Valdez is?
The accident highlights the serious, but often hidden, risks of coal. The coal industry has been launching an advertising blitz in recent years, particularly during the presidential campaign, lauding the fossil fuel for keeping America's lights on, and for the promise of "clean coal."
"Clean coal" is typically used to refer to next-generation (that is, not this generation) technology that will capture the pollution the emissions that cause acid rain, smog and, critically, global warming that spews from smokestacks. It says nothing about the real-world damage from coal mining or, in this case, the management of coal waste. "Mismanagement" would be the better term in this case.
The air pollution from coal-fired power plants is the largest contributor to America's greenhouse gas emissions, its acid rain and much of the nation's smog. Smog, lest anyone forget, leads to asthma and other lung diseases, heart attacks and premature death.
The spill highlights the need for the American economy to evolve. We have to do more with less energy an easy challenge, given the wastefulness in our energy consumption today. And we have to generate our electricity with clean sources, like the sun, wind and tides.
In the meantime, government has to get serious about regulating the power plants currently in operation so that at a minimum they safely contain their wastes.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.