Sunday, January 04, 2009

Where Electricity and Everything Else Comes From

Do you ever wonder where the everyday things come from?  Things like bacon (not me literally.  I'm vegetarian), the plastic storage containers that keep food fresh in the refrigerator, or the electricity that keeps our fridges running?  I'm not thinking so much of the mysterious nature of the electron, for example, or the amazing complexity of the the grid of generating plants, transmission stations, towers, wires, meters and companies that make it possible for me to turn on my lights or write on my plastic encased computer without much thought.

No, I am thinking about the most basic component of that thoughtlessness -- coal, "pig slurry", petroleum.  Half of the electricity in this country is generated by coal. I don't live in the regions where coal is dug.  Major mines are distant from most Americans, either physically or emotionally.  We don't think about where our electricity comes from until there's a disaster of some kind like here  in New England over the last few weeks as an ice storm brought down power lines and deprived residents of power for as much as two weeks. 

The other time we are shocked into awareness is when some process we didn't know existed causes a disaster we didn't know could happen.  I am referring to the collapse of the coal ash retention pool serving the Tennessee Valley Authority plant in Kingston Tennessee. The TVA was an initiative of the New Deal created to bring jobs and electricity to the rural South.  I had never thought where the by-products of electric production went to, that it was stockpiled in the same way the by-products of pork production are stockpiled, in large, lightly regulated "ponds" of thousands of tons of, well, crap. And it seems the people living near the coal ash repository hadn't given much thought to what it meant to live near a toxic waste.  They took the TVA  at its word that the material was "inert."  Of course the 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge is not.  It is polluting wells, the river, the land of central Tennessee with arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals. 

Most of us are perfectly willing to ignore how the things of everyday life come to us, whether that is electricity, bacon, or the even that most ubiquitous commodity, plastic.  The South has become a convenient dumping ground for the country's prosperity.  Here I am thinking about the people of  Mossville, LA and the toxic legacy of petroleum refining and plastic production that has become their heritage. Their environmental disaster has been going on for years and our government largely unresponsive.  The organizers of Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) are now parties to a federal lawsuit to force the EPA to do their job and protect them and all the peoples of the Gulf Coast from the toxic outflows-- every year thousands of tons of chemicals (generally known as dioxins)  and proven to be detrimental to our health  -- carcinogens and toxins that affect our blood, brain development, hormones and immune system --  spew forth from the petroleum refining industry.

The people of Mossville  want to be free from the diseases that have caused residents to refer to their town, and a 100 mile stretch of towns and cities as  "cancer alley." The women of MEAN (most of the organizers are women) are in their second decade laboring to protect their health, the Gulf region and by extension, all of our lives against the predation of industries more concerned with their profits than our wellness.  The folks in Kingston Tennessee should pay attention, if only so they will realize what a long, slow trip it's gonna be.

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