No coal. Photo: Jeffrey Dubinsky via Flickr

Anti-coal activists are inspired to hit the streets.

Sarah McCoin watched for years as coal fly ash piled up at the coal-fired power plant just a mile down the road from her house in Harriman, Tenn. “We’d question, ‘I wonder how high they’re going to build that thing? I wonder what they’re going to do with it after that?'” she said. “It never entered our minds that the thing would blow.”

But it did, on Dec. 22. An earthen dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant broke, unleashing about 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry — roughly enough to fill 798 Olympic-size swimming pools, and 10 times more gunk than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Dark gray sludge — essentially the waste from coal-burning plants that’s deemed too nasty to pump into the air — surged into the yards of McCoin’s neighbors and displaced the water in surrounding ponds and streams, inundating some 300 acres. TVA estimates that cleanup could cost as much as $825 million.

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McCoin is worried about the heavy metals in the coal ash. She’s worried about what it will do, in both the long and short term, to the water, soil, and air around her town. She doesn’t trust TVA’s assurances that the waste is nothing to worry about. “If it’s not hazardous, then why is it proven that there are all these heavy metals in it?” she asked. “If that’s not hazardous, I don’t know what is.”

And McCoin is not content to just worry. On Jan. 16, she and fellow Harriman resident Tom Grizzard traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and convey the message that coal ash should be regulated as hazardous waste. Currently, coal-ash ponds are not subject to any federal regulation at all. McCoin has also teamed up with other concerned neighbors to form the Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network.

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The Kingston spill made activists out of McCoin, Grizzard, and other members of their community. At the same time, it’s invigorated anti-coal campaigns that were already underway. Environmental groups have been able to use the TVA disaster as a vivid illustration of a message they’ve been trying to drive home for years: Coal is dirty from extraction to ignition to waste disposal, and no matter how the industry tries to spin it, it can never be “clean.” As the new administration and Congress dig in, activists hope this example can be a potent weapon in the political battle against coal.

Tough times for coal

The past two months have been a public relations nightmare for the coal industry. First there was the Tennessee spill shortly before Christmas. On New Year’s Day, a coal train derailed in Otero County, Colo. On Jan. 9, a leak at a second TVA waste pond at the unfortunately named Widows Creek Power Plant in northeastern Alabama spilled some 10,000 gallons of gypsum slurry, the same day that a coal train operated by National Coal Corporation overturned, dumping 1,100 tons of coal along the New River in Scott County, Tenn. TVA took another hit on Jan. 13 when a U.S. district court judge in North Carolina ruled that four of its coal plants in Alabama and Tennessee are a public health nuisance and need to be cleaned up.

On the political front, the news has been just as bad, thanks in large part to the new Obama administration. Even before the president was sworn in, his EPA nominee, Lisa Jackson, told the Senate that if she were confirmed, the agency would assess the hundreds of coal-ash storage sites around the country. Just a few days after Obama moved into the White House, the EPA put a hold on the approval of a coal-fired power plant in South Dakota, saying the state’s proposed permit didn’t meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

The agency then said it would develop new rules governing mercury emissions from coal plants, and delayed a Bush-era rule that could have allowed greater amounts of air pollution from coal plants. The Obama Justice Department launched a campaign to “stop illegal pollution” from coal-fired power plants and sued the owner of a Kansas coal plant for not installing required pollution control equipment. Most recently, the EPA this week opened the door to regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act, saying it will revisit an 11th-hour Bush administration decision not to consider such emissions when granting permits for new plants.

On the state level, the governors of Michigan, Wisconsin, and even South Carolina have been pushing back against coal, citing a variety of complaints, from environmental to financial. And a handful of planned coal plants around the country have been put on hold.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media is changing its tune about coal in the wake of the TVA disaster. In January, both The New York Times and Time used the Tennessee spill to argue that clean coal is a “myth,” and this month another New York Times article cited the spill as it asked, “Is America ready to quit coal?”

“We’ve become something of a poster child down here,” said Chris Irwin, the staff attorney at United Mountain Defense, a Knoxville, Tenn., nonprofit that fights strip mining. His group was propelled by the TVA spill to highlight the waste-disposal problems at the other end of coal’s lifecycle, and helped coordinate McCoin and Grizzard’s lobbying trip to Washington. “It’s not just the global warming, it’s not just the air pollution, it’s not just the clear-cutting, it’s not just the blowing up of mountains, it’s not just the ash,” said Irwin. “It’s all of it. You can’t call coal clean.”

Green groups in Washington also quickly launched new anti-coal campaigns after the Tennessee disaster. Climate advocacy coalition 1Sky urged its network of activists to call on Congress to impose a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. More than 10,000 people used the group’s web form to send letters to their legislators.

“We definitely pivoted off that coal ash disaster to really drive one of our central messages home, which is that coal isn’t clean and it’s not going to be clean anytime soon,” said Gillian Caldwell, 1Sky campaign director. While 1Sky has been active on coal issues since its founding in 2007 — it was actually one of the group’s campaigners who got Joe Biden into trouble last fall by asking him about “clean coal” on the campaign trail — the TVA spill was a galvanizing event. “I think there’s nothing more visually poignant than those photographs to demonstrate the oxymoron of clean coal,” said Caldwell.

Ad it up

The Kingston spill hit at the end of a year in which the coal industry spent big to sell political candidates and the public on the idea of “clean coal.” The industry dropped between $35 million and $45 million on advertising in 2008, much of it via the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. They sponsored presidential debates, handed out swag at campaign rallies in swing states, snapped photos of a repentant Biden mugging with a woman in a “clean coal” hat. They spent about $2 million on advertising just in and around each of the two national political conventions — handing out city maps, buttons, and boxes of breath mints stamped with the ACCCE logo.

And they were pretty pleased with the outcome. “Even in a communication-saturated environment we achieved, even exceeded, our wildest expectations (and we believe those of our client!),” wrote the PR firm Hawthorn Group, which ACCCE hired to orchestrate a “grassroots campaign,” in a December 2008 newsletter. “Not only did we raise the awareness of the issue, but we got the major candidates on both sides of the aisle talking about the issue in the debates, at campaign rallies and in interviews.”

But even tens of millions of dollars in advertising couldn’t insulate the industry from the damage of the TVA disaster, the largest toxic waste spill in the country’s history.

“[The coal industry] did a pretty good job of confusing and really clouding the issue as to whether there really is such a thing as clean coal,” said Bruce Nilles, national coal campaign director for the Sierra Club. “What the TVA spill really did in one fateful day was sweep away all that investment they made and re-expose the scar of what the coal industry is doing in our country in a very dramatic way.”

“We don’t have to be slick,” said Irwin of United Mountain Defense. “We don’t have to hire public relations people down here to show the destructive influence of coal. We just stick you in the middle of a pit and show you a bright orange stream and say, ‘Does that look clean?'”

“That’s why they have to put so much money into public relations, because they have to hide reality, the truth, and that’s always going to be hard and expensive,” he continued.

Still, some in the anti-coal movement have been investing in a PR campaign of their own. In early December, a coalition of national environmental groups, under the moniker “Reality Coalition,” launched a national ad campaign to hammer home the idea that “clean coal” is a myth.

The coalition has been running ads on cable TV, in national newspapers and magazines, and on a wide cross-section of websites (including Grist). In D.C., it’s running a subway ad campaign that features mythical creatures like Sasquatch and a mermaid holding lumps of coal. Brian Hardwick, director of communications and development for the Alliance for Climate Protection, one of the groups leading the campaign, wouldn’t say how much the coalition is spending on the ads, but did say that it’s a “substantial buy” in the multi-millions. “It’s competitive with what the coal industry is doing,” he said.

Still, nothing has driven home the activists’ point more powerfully than the Tennessee catastrophe.

I’m just a spill on Capitol Hill

The spill has certainly been reverberating on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, convened a hearing on it on Jan. 8 and suggested that coal ash should be federally regulated as hazardous waste. “You have got big problems,” Boxer told TVA President Tom Kilgore. “You have got to clean up your act, literally. … Inaction had allowed this enormous volume of toxic material to go largely unregulated.”

On Jan. 14, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and hails from a coal state, introduced legislation that would establish federal standards for coal-ash depositories. “The disaster witnessed at the Kingston, Tenn., facility — which could have been avoided had TVA exercised appropriate engineering and monitoring regimes — was a clarion call for action,” he said.

Even Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a strong coal supporter from the coal state of Tennessee, is sounding critical. “Coal is a dirty business,” he told a Knoxville TV station. Alexander met with Harriman residents McCoin and Grizzard during their trip to D.C. and indicated to them that he’s looking into legislation on fly ash, though he has said he’s not ready to recommend federal action. Alexander has been a major recipient of campaign donations from TVA board members and he chairs the congressional Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus, so any shift from him would be big.

Activists hope the TVA spill will also inspire Congress to curb mountaintop-removal (MTR) mining in Appalachia, which the Bush administration encouraged by making it legal for mining companies to dump waste in streams. Two years ago, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and now-former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) introduced a bill that would have curbed MTR operations by reinstating rules on dumping mine waste into waterways; it garnered 153 cosponsors, but never made it to a vote.

“We think that with the increased attention that people are paying to handling our coal waste responsibly, with an end to this Bush era of lack of regulation and safety, we think that we’re dealing with a completely new environment,” said J.W. Randolph of the nonprofit group Appalachian Voices. “We think that Congress, and the administration, and the American public is ready to stop MTR mining. … Obama could do that, but we really want to see it made into law, because in four years or eight years you never know if you’ll get another knucklehead in office who will just change it with the swipe of a pen.”

The battle on the ground

Ultimately, the anti-coal movement wants to halt the roughly 80 new coal plants currently planned or in the works across the country, said Nilles of the Sierra Club. Though activists are buoyed by the early signals from the Obama administration, they worry the plants being rushed through state permitting processes will get the green light unless there’s more direct intervention from the U.S. EPA. “Even if a fraction of those plants get built, it will be impossible for Obama to see a reduction in greenhouse gases during his tenure,” said Nilles. “Those coal plants we estimate would emit something around 400 million tons of carbon dioxide each year if all of them get built.”

Nilles hopes the Obama administration will move to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, which would likely put the brakes on new power plants and force emission cuts from the roughly 600 plants currently in operation.

Even while pushing for federal action, activists have been busy taking on coal plant by plant. They’re targeting proposed plants in Michigan and Nevada, as well as one in Kansas that just won’t die, despite multiple permit rejections by the state’s governor and environmental officers.

The Sierra Club is also kicking off a campaign to shut down some coal-fired plants already in operation, starting with one in Oregon and one in Washington state. The intent is to play on the environmental leanings of the Pacific Northwest. “We want to send a message to Montana and Wyoming that yes, you want to continue pushing coal, but your customers don’t want that anymore,” said Nilles. “If you want to continue being an energy exporter to those green folks in Portland and Seattle, they’re demanding clean energy.”

And campaigners are planning a big display of civil disobedience on March 2 at the coal-fired plant that powers the U.S. Capitol.

Meanwhile, Grizzard and McCoin are focused on making sure that no other communities have to suffer like theirs has.

“When it affects you as it did, and our families as it did, then … I would like for it to be known that we need to get some consideration and we need to get it taken care of,” said Grizzard.

“There are other communities around the country that are in the exact same position we’re in,” said McCoin. “We just happened to get the spill on this go around.”