Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This is "Clean Coal": Massive Coal Sludge Spill Dwarfs Exxon Valdez Disaster

Cross-posted from WattHead - Energy News and Commentary

Let's see how the "clean coal" PR hucksters at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity try to spin this tragic news: a retention pond holding toxic coal ash slurry burst Monday in Roane County, Tennessee, releasing over half a billion gallons of potentially toxic sludge that swept into the nearby town of Harriman and contaminated tributaries of the Tennessee River. The resulting flood damaged 15 homes, injured one man as it knocked his house of its foundations, and has left over 400 acres of land covered by several feet of coal ash, mud and contaminated water (see video below).

Coal ash and slurry is the normal byproduct of coal-fired electricity generating, and is usually stored in giant retaining ponds near coal plants. The resulting coal slurry is frequently contaminated by heavy metals, mercury and arsenic.

Yesterday's tragedy struck at the coal ash impoundment associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston coal-fired steam plant and released about 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry, the Tennessean reports. That's enough to fill nearly 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and is over 40 times more contaminated sludge than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill.

As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words - and a video is worth even more; you can see scenes from the environmental disaster at the photo gallery here and the video below:

Greenpeace has called for a criminal investigation into the disaster, noting that similar spills in the past have resulted in felony charges.

"Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster," said Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable."

The coal industry has a long and not-so-stellar record of coal slurry disasters.

"This is the kind of scary thing that people living with coal worry about every day," notes Dana, a West Virginia-based activist with the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

At ItsGettingHotInHere.org, Dana writes:
In February 1972, Buffalo Creek Sludge Impoundment, [burst and released] a mere 132 million gallons, killed 125 people, left 5,000 homeless and thousands more with post traumatic stress disorder. In 2000, a 2.2 billion gallon coal waste dam failed in Martin County, Kentucky. The largest dam in the hemisphere is the Brushy Fork Sludge Impoundment, which holds 9 billion gallons of toxic coal waste.

So, this is the history coalfield residents hold in our hearts when we open our emails and see “Slurry Pond Bursts.”
The Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles, writing at DailyKos, notes:
"There are literally hundreds of these sludge impoundments across the United States. As coal has dominated Appalachia, it has left behind a toxic legacy for residents, a legacy that will haunt the region for decades. For example, in Sundial, West Virginia, an elementary school sits just 400 yards downhill from a massive impoundment containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge."
Greenpeace notes that, like Exxon Valdez, the millions of gallons of coal sludge released Monday could take years to clean up, and some of the damage to the ecosystem could be irreparable.

"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.

Smolski added that these local impacts represent only a small fraction of coal's negative impact.

"The really sad thing about this spill is that it's only a small example of the damage coal causes," Smolski added. "Add in global warming, tens of thousands of annual premature deaths from power plant pollution, and hundreds of mountains leveled across Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, and that's the real picture of coal."

Monday's tragic slurry spill puts the lie to the coal industry's recent multi-million dollar "clean coal" PR blitz. You simply can't argue with reality - at least not for too long.

See related posts:

Ernst&Young reports record investments in Cleantech companies

Global investment in cleantech companies reaches record US$4.6 billion
in the first three quarters of 2008

Venture capital investment in cleantech companies reached a record
US$4.6 billion in the first three quarters of 2008, according to Ernst
& Young's analysis of activity in the United States, Europe, China and
Israel based on data from Dow Jones VentureSource. This is an increase
of 82% compared with the same period last year and represents 13% of
all venture capital investment in these geographies.

"Global venture capital investment in cleantech accelerated in 2008 as
a number of companies, particularly in the solar and wind market,
entered the capital intensive stage of commercializing new
technologies. This increase in activity has been stimulated by a
strengthening corporate commitment to tackling climate change," said
Gil Forer, Ernst & Young's Global Director of Cleantech, IPO and
Venture Capital Initiatives.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Konarka Announces Strategic Collaboration and $45 Million Investment from Total

Total, One of the World's Major Integrated Oil and Gas Companies, and
First Rank Player in Chemicals, Aims to Grow Photovoltaic Thin Film
Business through R&D, Collaboration with Konarka

Konarka Technologies, Inc., an innovator in development and
commercialization of Power Plastic(R), a material that converts light
to energy, today announced the company has signed bilateral R&D and
cooperation agreements with Total, one of the largest publicly-traded
integrated international oil and gas companies in the world. Konarka
has secured $45 million in funding and Total will become the leading
shareholder with its stake being slightly less than 20%. Konarka will
work on developing new components for their products with Total's
chemical subsidiaries – Atotech, Bostik, Hutchinson, Sartomer and
Total Petrochemicals USA. Already present in solar energy through its
interest in Photovoltech and Tenesol, Total intends to step up its
crystalline silicon-based cell production. At the same time, it aims
to grow in the thin film segment; which Konarka will help it to do.

"This is a very substantial and significant investment from a major
global energy corporation," commented Howard Berke, executive chairman
and co-founder of Konarka. "This strategic alignment will give Konarka
access to a new strength of resources, assets and operations from
around the world. Through the agreements, Konarka will be very
instrumental in helping Total to secure its future in solar energy by
facilitating the growth of its solar thin film segment of the
company's renewable energy business."

Following the transaction, Philippe Boisseau, President, Total Gas &
Power, stated: "This investment positions Total strategically to
secure the future of solar energy while expanding its technological

"We look forward to working with Total's five chemical subsidiaries on
technical collaboration, as well as efficient operational procedures,"
commented Rick Hess, president and CEO at Konarka. "Active in the area
of solar energy for the past 20 years, Total also brings extensive
expertise in carbon chemistry. The collaboration between the two
companies will advance the deployment of solar power for more
cost-efficient, renewable energy around the globe."

Total is one of the world's major oil and gas groups with activities
in more than 130 countries. Its 96,000 employees put their expertise
to work in every part of the industry – exploration and production of
oil and natural gas, refining and marketing, gas and power and
trading. Total is working to keep the world supplied with energy, both
today and tomorrow. The Group is also a first rank player in

Friday, December 05, 2008

Too Big To Fail? Too Big, Period.

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute and WattHead - Energy News and Commentary

The executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler made yet another trek to Washington DC this week - this time ditching the corporate jets to drive hybrid cars - and once again pled for a federal bailout to prop up their struggling companies. Up to $34 billion taxpayer dollars are apparently all that stands between at least two of the "Big Three" automakers and bankruptcy.

GM's executives told Congress the company will fail very, very soon unless it receives at least $12 billion in loans in the coming months. Chrysler warned they could go belly up by year's end without $7 billion in government aid. Even Ford, which is doing a bit better than its two Detroit brethren, is asking for an open, taxpayer-funded line of credit of up to $9 billion dollars.

All this means its time for Congress and the American public to face two basic facts.

First, GM and Chrysler are essentially bankrupt already, and Ford may not be far behind. The insular management of the Big Three has already run their companies into the ground, and if a massive government loan is the only thing that will keep them afloat, we might as well consider them failed companies, for all intents and purposes. So let's start treating them that way. With the economy in recession already, we certainly need to ensure a soft landing - rather than a hard collapse - for the auto companies and the millions of Americans who depend on them for their paychecks. But the objective of the bailout should be to preserve American auto industry jobs, not to preserve the Big Three companies themselves. GM, Chrysler, and perhaps even Ford are done. We shouldn't be afraid to turn the page on this chapter of the American auto industry and usher in something entirely new - and better.

Second, if GM, Chrysler and Ford are too big to fail, then it's time to realize that they are simply too big, period. If taxpayers are going to put their money on the line to bailout Detroit, we should be taking advantage of this opportunity to make fundamental changes to the American auto industry. It is time to say, "Never again!" to auto companies that are so large that they can hold taxpayer's hostage because the consequence of their failure is too great - companies that are so large that competition and innovation are stifled by their vast and unwieldy bulk.

Here's what we propose: offer government loans to the Big Three to ensure the companies don't collapse now during the midst of recession. But the conditions of those loans should be similar to the conditions of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy the companies would enter in absence of the loans. No blank checks for the Big Three to continue business as usual.

Instead, Congress will appoint an independent blue ribbon commission. They'll staff that commission with the best bankruptcy judges, restructuring consultants, and industry experts in the world. This commission will be charged with breaking the company up into several smaller companies that will inherit the different divisions, car models and assets of the parent. The commission will then seek new management to run each new company, deploying head hunters to recruit top talent from mid-level management within the Big Three, or even in the ranks of foreign companies like Toyota, Volkswagen or Hyundai.

The new companies - Baby GMs, or Baby Chryslers - will then be turned back over to the private sector and they'll be encouraged to issue new common stock to raise more operating capital. The government will have to vigorously enforce anti-trust laws to ensure these companies remain small, at least for the time being, and to keep foreign automakers or governments from gobbling them up (the Chinese government has already been shopping for one of the Big Three, and would gladly snatch up the new companies if we let them).

In the end, we'll have a new kind of American auto company - leaner and nimbler, and under a new class of managers - and a new kind of America auto industry - one that's more competitive and fosters the continual innovation that's been absent in Detroit for too long.

In the short run, we'll protect as many automaker jobs as possible by injecting capital into these new companies to help them weather the transition period. In the long run, some of these new companies will fail, but when they do, they won't be large enough to send the entire economy into tailspin. And for every company that fails, others will succeed by adopting a corporate culture that embraces innovation and produces high-quality cars that match the American consumer's demands.

The net result will be a vibrant and innovative American auto industry that sustains good manufacturing jobs here in the United States. The new competitive environment will foster the adoption of more efficient vehicle designs, encourage the development of cutting-edge technologies like plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and create space for up-and-comers like Silicon Valley-based electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors to enter the field.

That's the future of the American auto industry. Anything short of this kind of dramatic restructuring of the industry will merely prolong the inevitable day when GM, Chrysler and Ford fall under their own weight, taking American jobs, taxpayer dollars and our economy with them. Too big to fail? Too big, period.

[Image source: FoxNews.com]