Friday, June 26, 2009

Compson Sartain's take on coal ash

Columnist W. Compson Sartain has also weighed in on the coal ash debate in his weekly feature, "Don't listen to me..." Here are selected items from the past three weeks of Sartain's musings on what the coal ash means to Perry County. 

For those unfamiliar with the format of Sartain's column, each item is considered to be the continuation of his column's titular suggestion. While the column is meant to be lighthearted and satirical, Sartain's work has a way of cutting to the meat of many political issues in a way that straight news and commentary simply cannot. 

— John A. Clark

June 11, 2009

…but I’m learning more about coal ash than I ever wanted to know. First of all, we’re pretty sure now that the coal ash from the now famous TVA spill is coming to the Perry County Landfill. We’ll likely be giving a home to all three million tons of it. Now, the $1 per ton tipping fee the county gets from the landfill would help out our general funds considerably—especially now that the county is considering making good on its promise to split the money with Marion and Uniontown, if, that is, they play ball—but there are still some concerns. Despite some reports that such material is not hazardous, we’re pretty sure that it is. Why would you need to clean up a spilled anything if it wasn’t hazardous? If this isn’t enough to alarm y’all alarmists out there, consider the report from independent scientists from Duke University, who tested this particular coal ash for its dangerous content. Most alarmingly, they found a considerably higher percentage of arsenic and radium (which is radioactive) than one normally finds in coal ash. Now, we’re reassured that if things are done properly, if the plastic lining of the landfill doesn’t rupture, if the underlying layer of chalk does in fact help safeguard the ground water, if the coal ash remains securely covered to prevent toxic airborne dust, if we never ever ever have a torrential rain that overflows the landfill, and if every person along the long chain of people who have to do everything just right does in fact do everything just right, we should all be fine with nothing to worry about. But how often does that happen in Perry County, or in the world anywhere? If everything was being done just right, this stuff wouldn’t have been spilled in the first place.

…but even though I’m not very good at math, my wife is, and she checked my numbers on this one. If even a very small amount of this coal ash is hazardous, say one-one-thousandth of one percent—which sounds tiny—of this stuff that is what we’d call bad stuff, that would still be 300 tons of pure bad stuff in our back yards. Sounds like a lot to me.

…but several of our leaders flew in a private TVA plant to negotiate with TVA officials to dump the coal ash in our dump. I think it matters who went: Commissioners Albert Turner, Tim Sanderson, Marion Councilman Corin Harrison, and Uniontown Mayor Jamal Hunter all took the trip, but so did Commissioners Fairest Cureton and Clarence Black, who won their commission seats on campaign promises to fight the landfill. Looks like the fight is over, and we’ve established the dollar value of a campaign promise.

…but I wonder, what with all the improvements being made to Vaiden Field—our own airport—and with the fact that the more use that airport sees, the more grant money it will be able to get—and with all the commission’s talk of what a good and useful economic tool the airport could be for the Black Belt, why all of these people chose to fly out of Craig Field in Selma, probably driving right past Vaiden on their way out of town. I think every one of us should ask them. A lot.

June 18, 2009

…but I’m sorry that we’re becoming Coal Ash Weekly around here, but this stuff just won’t go away. As a matter of fact, it’s coming. Ever since the TVA spill of this stuff, officials have been looking for a place to put the mess once it gets cleaned up. Despite EPA tests that have revealed highly toxic and even radioactive substances in said coal ash, TVA—the people who spilled the ash—and the EPA—the people who have to negotiate with the needs of large organizations and who in so doing have never ever lied to any member of the public ever under any circumstances in the history of its existence—say the coal ash is as safe as mother’s milk. I suppose that depends on the dietary habits of said metaphorical mother. If she lives on a steady diet of arsenic and radium, then I guess the analogy might hold up. Hypothetically toxic teats notwithstanding, I have to return to my persistent question: if this stuff is so safe, why bother cleaning it up when it spills? I won’t feel comfortable until I see a delegation from EPA and TVA standing on the courthouse square, each member stirring a heaping spoonful of this coal ash into a glass of Tennessee river water this stuff has already fallen into, and gargling with it. Go ahead. Put our money where your mouth is.

…but if this stuff is so safe, why don’t we give that away for free as fill dirt and mobile home pads? Why not pile it all up on the courthouse square for people to come get as they please? We’ll never have to buy cat litter again. Fill your kids’ sandboxes. A spoonful will probably kill whatever parasites you have troubling you. Maybe it’ll make a dandy ice cream topping. According to Marion Councilman Corin Harrison, TVA and EPA promise that this coal ash contains fewer toxins and in less quantity than dirt from your own back yard. I’m not comforted by this, and you shouldn’t be either. Maybe they’re right. After all, these are two groups who probably know what was dumped here back before we had a landfill to put it in.

…but it’s possible that not all of the coal ash is coming to Perry County. Some of it may going to Cumberland County, Tennessee, where the locals are just as upset about this as we are. What a way to make a sister city. I hereby challenge Cumberland County to a duel. Whoever has the most birth defects in ten years wins. Or maybe we should use an elaborate points system I devised. Extra toes and fingers are worth one point. Siamese twins are worth two points (three for triplets and so on for each additional attached little person). Less obvious physical conditions will be awarded points on the severity, and let’s give a respectful twenty points for every child born with an organ on the outside of its body.

…but I look for Hollywood to make one of them lawyerin’ movies about us here in another decade or two. I bet they won’t shoot it here, though.

June 25, 2009

…but how about that other happy goodtime job and revenue generator down in Uniontown—the landfill. I’m sure you know by now that we’re going to get a large amount of probably hazardous coal ash that should go to the landfill. Even though the county does stand to make quite a bit of money from allowing that stuff to be dumped here, most people I’ve talked to and read about don’t like the idea of toxic material being dumped in their communities. Some arguments say that coal ash isn’t toxic, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. A recent article in Scientific American said that coal ash actually releases more radiation into the environment than nuclear waste . This makes sense because nuclear waste spends most of its radiation before becoming waste, and because of the strict standards one has to follow in disposing of it. The standards are obviously not so strict on the more radioactive coal ash.

…but I suspect the security of our landfill might compare to the security of our prisons, and the Department of Homeland Security apparently agrees. The federal watchdogs have even refused to disclose a complete list of coal ash dumping sites around the country because they are worried about terrorists attacking these sites to release the toxic material on the surrounding communities. This doesn’t sound like non-hazardous waste to me. When the fed puts a substance in a similar category to anthrax, I’m less inclined to listen to Albert Turner when he tells me I don’t need to be worrying about it.

…but Little Al isn’t opposed to coal ash. As a matter of fact, he wants us to have as much coal ash as we can get. He even wants to waddle down to Montgomery and pass some laws that secure our entitlement to accept everybody else’s toxic waste. He even says that he wants us to accept coal ash from TVA ash ponds around the state. Little Al wants them shut down and all the waste to come here because—get this—THEY ARE HAZARDOUS TO THE SURROUNDINIG COMMUNITIES.

..but I know Jesus taught us all about self sacrifice, but I don’t think this is what he had in mind. I don’t think Little Al’s quite thinking this way either, though he seems to say that we should take in everybody else’s toxins so they don’t have to suffer from them.

…but the a certain Marion politico wanted us to know that a lot of little  old ladies found last week’s headline offensive, due to the clever implied rhyme about Marion becoming the “ash hole” of the region. Funny. Nobody called me except to tell me how funny they thought that was. And this is yet another example of our backward priorities. You think the offensive thing would be all the toxic waste we’re about to have to live next to. And if your tender little ears are offended when I don’t write the word “ass,” then your heart’s probably too weak to take such unpleasant truths about the world anyway. I’m tired of us coddling one another. Let’s speak plainly for a change. If I have to live in a toxic waste dump, I at least want to live in an honest one.

…but maybe we should join Little Al in his effort to toxify Perry County for profit. I’m sure the rest of America produces a lot of dirty needles and other medical waste it would pay handsomely for someone to take off their hands. And those corpses of homeless people have to go somewhere. We could turn all of North Perry into a Potter’s Field. We could fence off hundreds of lowland acres and create an internment camp for the criminally insane. Maybe have a camp annex for the elderly people whose children don’t want to care for them anymore. Why don’t we get into the refugee business while we’re at it? Anybody set to be ethnically cleansed could just be sent here. Same for all those prisoners in Gitmo who don’t have anywhere to go. Yes, send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Send us everything you’ve got that’s toxic or infectious. For a quick, short-term profit, we’ll take it all.

…but during the county commission meeting this week, Commissioner Clarence Black looked up from the spot on the table he’s apparently been assigned to stare at and said he was maybe kind of opposed to bringing coal ash among his constituents. This is a convenient position for him to take at this point, because all of the other commissioners are so adamantly in favor of it that his vote and voice won’t make a difference either way. If he were really that concerned, we’d have heard his position much sooner, and he’d have at least tried to convince someone else of his position. I appreciate the token gesture, but come on. As is, he can look like he opposes the coal ash import without actually having to engage in politics or protest. But he never talks too loudly anyway. I can’t decide whether his problem is in his tongue or in his spine.

…but Black and the other commissioners took issue with our reporting on their jaunt to meet with TVA officials last week. They said the trip to Tennessee on a TVA jet was a “fact finding mission,” nothing more. They certainly weren’t going to lobby TVA to send the fly ash here. Never mind that they were accompanied by executives from the landfill, or that after that meeting, the ash’s final destination became quite clear. Calling a trip a “fact finding mission” makes it much easier for politicians to accept free stuff without getting into trouble for it.

…but Little Al dropped some more revealing illogic on us. He said that we shouldn’t worry about the coal ash because there’s an ash pond near Demopolis that nobody has complained about for fifty years. That so? Well, now’s a good time to start asking questions about it. I never thought to ask before, because I never knew it was there. Just because nobody has been complaining about it doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Little Al. Now go back and write another argument that doesn’t make any sense. I’ll take that one apart next time.

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