CORRECTION: The opening power point presentation was given by Dodd Galbreath, not “Dodd Lockwood.” My bad!
On Thursday night, I went to the Sierra Club’s “peoples’ hearing” on TVA’s proposal to spend a billion dollars on scrubbers for the stacks of its Gallatin, Tennessee, coal plant. The meeting, along with a couple of other recent news items, was a pleasant, uplifting surprise. All too often, public meetings and the news alike leave me with a hollow feeling closely associated with how it feels to be heading down a roller coaster curve that I know, just know, is going to make me toss my lunch. But not this time.
First, the facts of the matter, to the best of this admittedly biased reporter’s ability to state them. TVA’s Gallatin coal plant, just upriver (and usually upwind) from Nashville, is over fifty years old. It consumes 9 to 12,000 tons of coal a day to supply electricity to 300,000 homes (that’s 80 pounds of coal per home per day), and emits about 750,000 tons of CO2 per year to do that–that’s two and a half tons of CO2 per household, anda total of about 23,500 tons of sulfur dioxide, as well as large quantities of mercury, lead and other heavy metals and radioactive elements. The EPA has ruled that all coal plants must install scrubbers to remove the sulfur dioxide, etc., or close down. The “coal ash” that results from the scrubbing process will, apparently, be stored in large piles and containment ponds on the banks of the Cumberland River, just like the piles and ponds next to the Clinch River near Kingston Tennessee. (Remember what happened there?) and at every other coal-fired power plant in the country, because nobody’s figured out any safe use for all this highly toxic material. (oops, sorry, I’m editorializing! ….well, that IS the fact of the matter.) Because these ponds and piles are going to take up a lot of room, TVA will have to close down The Cumberland River Aquatic Center, which specializes in growing endangered mussel species (essential for restoring stream health) as well as gar and sturgeon. TVA has been strongly resistant to any kind of public input into their decision to do all this.
These scrubbers will not remove CO2 at all, and they will only remove the other toxins in the plant’s exhaust from the atmosphere, leaving them, as I said, in piles and ponds along the banks of the Cumberland River. The river could flood or the dams containing the ponds could break and send them into the river, upstream from Nashville and the sources of the city’s drinking water, creating the possibility of a disaster far worse than the Kingston spill, but meanwhile, the toxics in the ash will most assuredly leach into the ground and the local water table, as they have at most other coal plants. And, by the way, TVA’s heavy use of coal has given it the dubious distinction of being the fifth largest CO2 emitter in the country.
The scrubbers will cost a billion dollars to install. Guess who’s going to pay for them…if you guessed “TVA customers,” you guessed right. TVA is telling the public “We’ve decided you’re going to buy these for us.” Thanks, TVA!
Those are the facts of the matter, to the best of my opinionated ability. Here’s what happened at the meeting:
My wife and I arrived early enough to spend some time connecting with friends and enjoying the music of J.J. Kent, a Native American flutist who played live to a recorded backup band for a half hour before and after the meeting. This was an inspired, creative decision on the part of the Sierra Club, and I wish I could have split myself in two, so that one of me could sink into the meditation of Kent’s music, while the other one greeted the many members of the crowd of over 250 that I knew. Not only was just about “everybody’s who’s anybody” in the Middle Tennessee environmental movement present, a whole lot of people beyond “the usual suspects” showed up, with nearly 50 of us signed up for 3 minute speaking slots. TVA did have one observer in attendance, but he had nothing to say to the crowd. TVA has announced plans to slow down, but not stop, its coal use, insisting that coal is an important, and safe, energy option. But they say that about nuclear power, too.
The slogan the Sierra Club has adopted for their campaign is “Beyond Coal,” and every attendee received a bright yellow “Beyond Coal” t-shirt, which we were encouraged to don for this event. Most people complied.
After a short intro by UT Law Professor Dean Rivkin, Professor Dodd Galbreath of Lipscomb University presented the findings of a recent paper entitled “Coal’s Assault on Human Health,” which detailed the many kinds of damage that mining and burning coal can do to human beings. I was reminded that coal emissions are a potent trigger of heart disease, and that I did not have cardiac problems until I came to live here in the Nashville Basin, which often fills with exhaust from TVA’s Cumberland Plant, upwind from town,but not on the night’s agenda.
And then the testimonies began. Between forty and fifty people each took more or less three minutes to speak their piece about the Gallatin Coal plant. Men and women, lawyers, scientists, and schoolkids, black and white, the speakers spanned a wide spectrum, including the excellent to incomprehensible one. There were a lot of teens, twenty-, thirty, and forty-somethings among the speakers, and, as a guy in his sixties who can feel his vitality ebbing away, that was really heartwarming.
What many of the young people, as well as several of the older ones, had to report was having to deal with being part of an epidemic of likely coal-caused asthma, as well as other diseases connected to coal emissions. Of course, TVA could argue that the scrubber Is designed to end just exactly those problems, so it was fortunate that a great many of the rest of us focussed on the folly of coal as a fuel and the importance of energy conservation and being willing to “power down,” as more than one speaker put it. Donny Safer of the Tennessee Land Trust gave a good presentation on why nuclear power is not a viable alternative, and the foolishness of the billions of dollars TVA has spent pursuing that chimera. My own remarks pointed out that the reason we have to get “Beyond Coal” is because “coal kills,” and, whether alternate energy sources can keep us at our present, unprecedentedly luxurious level of power use or not, we need to turn off some of these lights to survive, or risk almost certain death keeping them on. But it was John McFadden of the Tennessee Environmental Council who, as one of the final speakers, both posed and answered the most important question of the night–how can we get TVA to listen to our concerns?
We had arrived at the same time as John, and happened to have parked our cars next to each other, so we walked in together, and on that walk in he talked about how he had been a Boy Scout and how many public figures he had greeted with “the Boy Scout handshake,” and how that had gotten their attention and opened doors that might otherwise have remained closed. In his time before the assembled crowd, he emphasized the importance of “relationship,” that you have to maintain relationships with decision makers if you want to influence them. Perhaps this sounds crass or naive at second hand, but the essence of “relationship” is focusing on what you have in common with somebody, not on your differences.
And what we have in common with even the very wealthiest people in the world is that we all need to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and we all have to live on the same small planet. We are all in it together here, and conditions are becoming dire enough to bring this home to many of our planet’s decision makers. The head of the World Bank has warned of the perils of global warming, and of continuing to burn fossil fuels in quantity. IMF Director Christine Lagarde has said, “Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled,” and, in spite of how some conspiracy theorists took that remark, she, too, was issuing a dire warning, not doing a promo for the Soylent Green cookbook. In China, the “airpoocalypse” is serving notice that the limits of safety and survivability have been reached and passed. Burning large quantities of fossil fuels on this small planet is like running your car in a closed garage. You can get away with it for a little while, but at a certain point you had better stop. We are at that point.
So, perhaps, in twenty or thirty years we will be able to look back and say “yes, that was when the tide turned.”
Or maybe not. These are, indeed, exciting times.
music: Ani DiFranco, “Splinter“