Commentary: Coal's costly spillover

It looks like a moonscape, dark gray and devastated. In the foreground, ruined houses stand or totter in a frozen river of coal ash; in the background loom the tall stacks of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant.

When the coal-burning electric power plant in rural Roane County, Tenn., started up in the mid-1950s, it was famed as the largest such plant in the world. Now it's infamous for largest fly ash slurry spill in U.S. history.

The cause isn't known, although heavy rain and a weakened dike are suspected. The consequences — harm to humans, nature and property — are still being sorted out.

TVA, the New Deal-era dam-building agency that is now the nation's largest coal-burning utility, owes nearby residents the fullest compensation. Everyone downstream from the plant west of Knoxville deserves unvarnished facts about potential hazards. Any and all factors that contributed to the disaster must be identified; there must be no repetition. And, after this wake-up call, North Carolina and the federal government should take a fresh look at how fly ash, a combustion byproduct, is handled in our state and around the nation.

Fly ash is is collected in coal plant smokestacks, stored on site and often is recycled into construction material. Before pollution controls, the ash simply spewed into the air. Now it's placed in retention ponds or in dry storage.

The Dec. 22 spill, it's estimated, let loose 5.4 million cubic yards of ash — a reminder of the high cost of burning coal. Miners' deaths and injuries are an unending cost, and so is environmental harm. Mountaintop removal, as it's practiced in the Appalachians, strips nature bare and fouls watercourses. Carbon dioxide released by burning coal contributes to climate change.

The TVA isn't a North Carolina utility, but the chain of relatively cheap electricity that starts in the coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky extends to our state (as does airborne pollution from TVA coal plants). When considering the costs of alternatives to coal, it will pay to keep the Kingston Fossil Plant in mind.