Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tennessee Legislators Take on Coal Ash Disposal

The TVA coal ash disaster in the final week of 2008 got people's eyes open maybe another millimeter to the realities of dirty coal -- from one end to the other. Discussion of mountaintop removal coal mining extended its reach into daily discussion last year, but efforts to get people thinking in terms of the whole cycle of coal -- from site preparation to extraction, transport, combustion and disposal of combustion wastes -- had not really taken hold. Even now, if you listen to the national conversation, it tends to be focused on one or two links in the chain.

The Tennessee coal ash disaster moved us a little further around the chain but stopped short -- for a few weeks anyway -- of the place in the cycle for permanent disposal or recycling. The first energized discussion emerged around plans to look at the Midtown Landfill in Roane County as a possible disposal site. Citizens in communities around the landfill made concerns known very quickly, causing the County Commissioners later to admit that they might have gotten ahead of themselves by putting money aside for permits and engineering. At last vote (to my knowledge) the Commission asked the County Executive and the County Attorney to collaborate with the TVA on a cost-benefit analysis of dumping coal ash in the landfill.

I suppose it would have been nice to include health and environmental risk assessments -- then again, that's one of those foxes-guarding-the-henhouse things better left to a dispassionate third-party. Tennessee already has landfills that accept coal ash. Could these all be, as some suggest, time-release disasters? Just ask people in Lansing, MI about risks of coal ash in landfills. Lithium, manganese, potassium, selenium and strontium have been detected in ground water beneath the North Lansing Landfill, and the Michigan Department of Environment and Conservation has confirmed EPA findings (2007) of contaminated groundwater beyond landfill boundaries.

Who can blame Roane County citizens for their protest, or legislators for introducing coal ash disposal bills in the first full session following the Kingston disaster? SB 1559, a bill that mandates Tennessee's Water Quality Control Board to revise rules for the disposal or recycling of coal ash to "enhance current protections of human health and the environment," already got through both House and Senate. At minimum, the new rules are to include requirements for "use of liners in any coal ash fill" and ground water monitoring for every ash disposal facility in the state.

SB 1559's water testing minimums are too lenient (in my opinion) but if public process survives other 2009 legislation, I can find a place for input as rules are revised. Of concern to me as well is the possibility that the water board would adopt the "at minimum" liner changes and stop there. Unfortunately, the absence of liners in landfills is not a direct cause of coal ash hazards. Liners help isolate toxic material, of course, but the placement and uses of coal ash, and the interactions of coal ash in the environment make this a far more complex issue than can be addressed by liners alone.

A second bill -- HB 2007/SB 1993 -- gets much more specific and comprehensive in its mandate for new coal ash rules, and wants them in place by the end of this year, rather than "within 1 year" as designated in SB 1559. HB 2007 uses the term "coal combustion byproducts" and includes examples that take much guess-work out of the more casual "coal ash" terminology.

HB 2007 also anticipates, perhaps, the evolution of national policy on use of coal combustion wastes (CCW) for mine reclamation, structural fill and the production of concrete. This bill requires that facilities accepting CCW conform to the same standards as landfills that handle industrial solid waste. I'm hoping this means that CCW would no longer be eligible for special approval dumping in municipal landfills in Tennessee. Disposal facilities would be required to meet local zoning and land use requirements as well as each county's long range solid waste management plans.

Use of coal combustion byproducts at both coal and non-coal reclamation sites "shall substantially conform" to industrial solid waste standards. This bill further specifies that "only alkaline coal combustion byproducts" are to be used at reclamation sites. This will require site operators to know what's in the CCW's they use, and given that coal used by TVA comes from many different mines in Appalachia and the West, that could be a difficult task. However, it's an important consideration for prevention of water contamination from reclaimed minesites known to be subject to acid mine drainage, for example, in Tennessee's southern coalfield counties and especially in the Sewanee coal seam.

Another important feature of this bill is the requirement for dust control measures at reclamation sites. People who live near these places don't need to suffer the same symptoms of exposure to silica crystals as people in Roane County continue to experience.

HB 2700 is on the House State and Local Government Committee calendar for Tuesday, April 28th -- yep, tomorrow. I'm thinking that the fate of this legislation will be yet another test to see how much the coal and coal-power industries have been able to manhandle Tennessee politicians in a bid to deregulate our state's water quality protections.

No matter what happens, the people of Tennessee -- and the United States, for that matter -- need to stay alert and learn all they can about coal combustion waste disposal and recycling. If any Phoenixes come rising up out of TVA's coal ash, I hope it's an empowered grassroots citizenry that demands its right to clean water, and holds polluters, policy-makers, and regulators accountable.

Updated: Monday, April 27th, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

TVA Coal Ash: The Saga Continues


Everything has to go somewhere. Back in the seventies, Barry Commoner named this principle as one of four basic laws of ecology. Anyone who has not gotten this by now can see it in action with the ongoing TVA coal ash disaster.

When coal turned to ash to make electricity at the Kingston plant, the ash had to go somewhere. When the retaining wall holding the ash collapsed, the ash had to go somewhere. As TVA works on clean-up, the ash has to go somewhere. Looks like one of the possibilities is the old Turner mine in Cumberland County, TN.

In March of 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency released a notice of their intention to issue a proposed rule on burial of coal ash on abandoned mine lands. This notice followed an in-depth report on coal combustion residues published in 2006 by a special committee of the National Research Council. The bottom line is that, at minimum, the burial of coal combustion residue is a very complex issue and needs to be done with great caution. As with lots of other things humans do with stuff that comes out of the Earth, there is still much to be known about long term risks that burial of coal combustion wastes might present.

As this issue continues to unfold in Cumberland County, I'll continue to update Seabird's Hollow with some of the science behind it and links to good resources. The folks in Cumberland County will have their hands full as they make their voices heard to protect their land, air and water. If you are interested in following the issue and the grassroots efforts to hold everyone accountable in the process, please go to NO Coal Ash in Cumberland County and read on.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is microencapsulated parathion killing all the bees?

For the past few years, I've been collecting stories on honeybee deaths, kind of like honeybees collect pollen. Today I found an article that suggests these honeybee collections might be killing them.

A former Humboldt State University prof says we may have had the answer to declining honeybee populations for at least two decades: pesticides, specifically a pollen-sized form of parathion entrapped in time-release plastic bubbles, licensed for use in 1974 by the EPA.

Not only does this stuff act on bee brains to disorient them -- some of it may be finding its way into the honey I stirred into my tea this morning.

"This is a consequence of decades of agribusiness warfare against nature and, in time, honeybees," says author Evaggelos Vanniotos.

And maybe us?

Read Honeybees Continue to Vanish: Don't Blame Aliens -- It's Our Addiction to Pesticides That's at Fault at

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Winter Soldiers

I really connected with IVAW when I found an article about them several years ago, I think at Alternet. I just read their April newsletter and thought I'd share what they're up to:

Message From the Front Lines of Iraq: "The War is Not Over"

As the country moves its attention away from Iraq, we in IVAW know that Obama's tentative plan for 50,000 residual forces to remain in Iraq for 20 or more months is indefensible. I want to share with you a recent email IVAW received from an active duty soldier who is home on leave from Iraq:

Hello my name is __________ i just recently returned from my tour of duty and i have alot of things on my chest that i would like to get off.... i am still stuck in the army for almost 1 more year facing stop loss orders to redeploy to OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and i would love to join your organization and speak out against the war crimes that ive been forced to commit in the name of our great country .... i am more than willing to speak out against what ive seen in Al Sadr City combat March 08 through March 09 ... i ask that you please contact me i have various combat footage from my AO that clearly shows the US military breaking the rules of the Geneva Conventions and i am more than willing to speak out even tho i am still on Active duty status. ive applied for CO [Conscientious Objector] status and been denied and even been insulted by my units leadership for doing so i would greatly appreciate a response.... For this Army Private, and thousands of others like him in Iraq, the ongoing occupation is very real with very real consequences. With so much still at stake in Iraq, IVAW is continuing to organize for immediate and complete withdrawal, full rights and benefits for returning troops, and reparations for the Iraqi people.

IVAW Winter Soldiers continue to tell their stories

Since the first hearings took place in March of 2008, IVAW continues to collect veterans' stories of their experiences of war. IVAW chapters have held six local Winter Soldier testimony events. Two more hearings were held so far in 2009. Austin IVAW organized hearings held at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin, TX on February 28. 300 people attended, with over 100 coming from as far as Oklahoma City. …Then on March 15,
Winter Soldier Europe took place in Freiburg, Germany and included testimony from U.S., British, and German troops who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Watch this clip of former British corporal, Martin Webster, telling his story.

I was also really inspired by stories of two new G.I. hangouts modeled after the Vietnam era Oleo Strut Coffeehouse. IVAW members participated in the grand opening of Under the Hood outreach center and café in Kileen, TX near Ft. Hood on February 29. It is run by Cindy Thomas, who is married to a soldier there. The mission of Under the Hood is to promote uncensored information sharing among active duty and reserve military personnel and civilians, including referrals, and GI rights counseling.

Excerpt from The Oleo Strut Coffeehouse And The G.I. Antiwar Movement, by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver:

Writing in the June, 1971, Armed Forces Journal, Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr. stated: "By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state of approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous... Word of the death of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units. In one such division, the morale-plagued Americal, fraggings during 1971 have been running about one a week.... As early as mid-1969 an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st Air Cavalry Division, flatly refused -- on CBS TV -- to advance down a dangerous trail... Combat refusal has been precipitated again on the frontier of Laos by Troop B, 1st Cavalry's mass refusal to recapture their captain's command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other secret operation orders... "

Shortly after this article appeared, President Nixon announced the new policy of "Vietnamization" and direct American combat operations came to an end within a year…(read full article

IVAW members have also been involved in starting the Coffee Strong Café around Ft. Lewis, Washington. G.I. Voice is a place for service members and their families around Fort Lewis to gather and share information, as well as a resource for those facing problems with service. See their website here.

"There's a pretty rich history of those in the peace movement," Manzel said…."I think this is going to be a real link between the peace movement and soldiers on the bases that these are outside of," said Manzel. (Read a December 2008 story here.)

Check out IVAW's website here, and donate some bucks if you can…