On December 22nd 2008 an earthen retaining wall not too far from Knoxville, Tennessee, gave way and more than one billion US gallons (about 5 million cubic yards) of potentially toxic wet coal ash flooded over 300 acres of the Tennessee Valley covering it in a deep layer of dark sludge.

A starker image of the dirtiness of coal really is hard to imagine.

While the recent PR battle raging between environmentalists and the coal industry focussed mainly the impact coal burning has on the climate, this spill is a timely reminder that “there is no such thing as clean coal” for other reasons as well.

The coal industry has been trying – with some success – to convince the American public that coal can be clean – both Barack Obama and John McCain proclaimed their support of clean coal during their presidential campaigns. By ‘clean’ they refer to the carbon emissions associated with burning it, claiming that with CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) technology it is possible to burn coal while the resulting carbon dioxide is pumped back into the earth. It is an enticing idea – with so much coal still out there, and plenty of it on US soil, the pressure to continue burning it is strong. And if we can do it without adding green house gasses to the atmosphere, why not?

Well, for one thing, as Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for Energy Secretary has explained, CCS is still far from ready to be used on a large scale, and there are no guaranties it will ever be (in fact Dr. Chu has famously stated that “Coal is [his] worst nightmare”). This is a fact that the coal industry is ignoring, preferring to concentrate on PR stunts and empty claims that all is well and that America should continue burning its coal as it has always done.

But there are other reasons why coal is dirty. One of them is that burning coal releases many other toxins, most of which are regulated and are happily no longer polluting the atmosphere. Unfortunately they don’t just disappear, but rather are now collected in retention sites like the one that collapsed in Tennessee.

So this spill, while not pertaining directly to the climate change aspects of burning coal, might at least make it a little harder to use the term “clean coal” and still sound convincing.

Is this then the beginning of the end of the “clean coal” debate? Will the Tennessee Coal Spill be a watershed event encouraging the American public to change their views on coal? It is possible – “If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today,” said Kate Smolski, Senior Legislative Coordinator for Greenpeace.

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