Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 25, 2008

Email and coal ash trails

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:05 pm

Not hazardous, according to Obama’s new energy czar

Seasoned Regulators to Lead Obama Environment Program
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008; A09

The Obama administration has ambitions for a radical change in U.S. environmental policy. But President-elect Barack Obama did not pick radicals to lead it.

Instead, the three officials tapped for leadership posts on the environment are not activists but regulators who have spent years in the weeds of such issues as mercury emissions, brownfields and black-bear hunts.

They will inherit the usual issues — dirty air, dirty water, brownfields and red tides — plus an unprecedented one. Obama has promised to cut back U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases — a proposal that could set off an enormous political fight.

A review of their records and past statements reveals little about the exact policies they would pursue under Obama. It shows they have won over some environmental activists with an open attitude and disappointed others who felt they were not pushing hard enough.

Their expected efforts to limit greenhouse gases would be more ambitious than changes they have sought in previous positions.

“It’s going to be an enormous challenge,” said Felicia Marcus, the western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “To call it ‘herding cats’ would be to oversimplify it. It’s like herding dogs, cats, wolves and sheep.”

Democratic sources say Obama plans to name Carol M. Browner, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to a new position overseeing energy, environment and climate change policy from the White House.

Full article


Washington Times
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Climate czar left no electronic trail
Jim McElhatton (Contact)

Don’t bother looking for any electronic records of Carol Browner’s first stint as a federal government executive. The soon-to-be Obama administration climate czar intentionally didn’t keep many.

In sworn testimony obtained by The Washington Times, Ms. Browner disclosed that she refused to use e-mail when she served as President Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency chief in the 1990s for fear of leaving a digital trail. She also ordered her government computer hard drive wiped clean of records just before leaving office.

“It was a conscious decision not to use a piece of equipment or to learn how to use a piece of equipment because I didn’t want to be in a situation similar to what I had been in Florida,” she testified about government computers. The testimony referred to her days as an environmental regulator in Florida, where an e-mail message sent to her surfaced in litigation.

“This is why I made this decision not to use my computer,” she said. “I was very careful.”

Full article


Waste News, May 1, 2000, Monday
U.S. EPA rules on coal waste; Material termed not hazardous
BYLINE: Susanna Duff
WASHINGTON — Coal combustion waste is not hazardous and can continue to be land disposed or used as mining fill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week.

However, the agency will develop national standards under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Combustion waste currently is exempt from federal regulation, but fossil fuel combustion has toxic metals that could potentially contaminate ground water, the EPA said.

The EPA’s April 25 proclamation came after several extensions from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which last year ordered the agency to determine whether fossil fuel waste is hazardous. The agency since had given two opposing answers. Last year, the EPA gave Congress a report based on a 19-year scientific study that found coal combustion waste was not hazardous and should be regulated as solid waste under RCRA Subtitle D.

But this February, the EPA determined combustion waste is hazardous and should be regulated under Subtitle C.

The agency caved under pressure from environmental groups, argued industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Edison Electric Institute and several state environmental agencies.

Environmentalists, including the National Environmental Trust and the Clean Air Task Force, had sent a letter dated Jan. 13 to EPA Administrator Carol Browner stating a hazardous determination would “hasten the building and operation of newer, modern plants using clear fuels, thus reducing the full range of air emissions.” The groups are thought to recently have sent the deciding report to the EPA.

The agency’s reversal to call combusted waste hazardous had surprised members of Congress and industry groups.

In a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee hearing, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., expressed concern that the agency was going against its own scientists under the influence of environmentalists. Inhofe indicated that the EPA’s final decision could affect the budget of the agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

“If the states and industry do not take steps to address these wastes adequately in a reasonable amount of time or if EPA identifies additional risks to public health, EPA will revisit this decision to determine whether a hazardous waste approach is needed,” said Michael McCabe, EPA acting deputy administrator.


NY Times, December 25, 2008
Coal Ash Spill Revives Issue of Its Hazards

KINGSTON, Tenn. – What may be the nation’s largest spill of coal ash lay thick and largely untouched over hundreds of acres of land and waterways Wednesday after a dam broke this week, as officials and environmentalists argued over its potential toxicity.

Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. But with no official word on the dangers of the sludge in Tennessee, displaced residents spent Christmas Eve worried about their health and their property, and wondering what to do.

The spill took place at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority generating plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville on the banks of the Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River, and then the Tennessee River just downstream.

Holly Schean, a waitress whose home, which she shared with her parents, was swept off its foundation when millions of cubic yards of ash breached a retaining wall early Monday morning, said, “They’re giving their apologies, which don’t mean very much.”

The T.V.A., Ms. Schean said, has not yet declared the house uninhabitable. But, she said: “I don’t need your apologies. I need information.”

Even as the authority played down the risks, the spill reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Similar ponds and mounds of ash exist at hundreds of coal plants around the nation.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxic substances. “Most of that material is inert,” said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”

Mr. Francis said contaminants in water samples taken near the spill site and at the intake for the town of Kingston, six miles downstream, were within acceptable levels.

But a draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.

Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter federal controls of coal ash, but backed away in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials. At the time, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of power utilities, estimated that the industry would have to spend up to $5 billion in additional cleanup costs if the substance were declared hazardous. Since then, environmentalists have urged tighter federal standards, and the E.P.A. is reconsidering its decision not to classify the waste as hazardous.

A morning flight over the disaster area showed some cleanup activity along a road and the railroad tracks that take coal to the facility, both heaped in sludge, but no evidence of promised skimmers or barricades on the water to prevent the ash from sliding downstream. The breach occurred when an earthen dike, the only thing separating millions of cubic yards of ash from the river, gave way, releasing a glossy sea of muck, four to six feet thick, dotted with icebergs of ash across the landscape. Where the Clinch River joined the Tennessee, a clear demarcation was visible between the soiled waters of the former and the clear brown broth of the latter.

By afternoon, dump trucks were depositing rock into the river in a race to blockade it before an impending rainstorm washed more ash downstream.

The spill, which released about 300 million gallons of sludge and water, is far larger than the other two similar disasters, said Jeffrey Stant, the director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative for the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental legal group, who has written on the subject for the E.P.A. One spill in 1967 on the Clinch River in Virginia released about 130 million gallons, and the other in 2005 in Northampton County, Pa., released about 100 million gallons into the Delaware River.

The contents of coal ash can vary widely depending on the source, but one study found that the mean concentrations of lead, chromium, nickel and arsenic are three to five times higher in the Appalachian coal that is mined near Kingston than in Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.

Stephen A. Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was “mind-boggling” that officials had not warned nearby residents of the dangers.

“The fact that they have not warned people, I think, is disastrous and potentially harmful to the residents,” Mr. Smith said. “There are people walking around, checking it out.”

He and other environmentalists warned that another danger would arise when the muck dried out and became airborne and breathable.

Despite numerous reports from recreational anglers and television news video of a large fish kill downstream of the spill, Mr. Francis said the T.V.A.’s environmental team had not encountered any dead fish. On Swan Pond Road, home to the residences nearest the plant, a group of environmental advocates went door to door telling residents that boiling their water, as officials had suggested, would not remove heavy metals.

Environmentalists pointed to the accident as proof of their long-held assertion that there is no such thing as “clean coal,” noting two factors that may have contributed to the scale of the disaster. First, as coal plants have gotten better at controlling air pollution, the toxic substances that would have been spewed into the air have been shifted to solid byproducts like fly ash, and the production of such postcombustion waste, as it is called, has increased sharply.

Second, the Kingston plant, surrounded by residential tracts, had little room to grow and simply piled its ash higher and higher, though officials said the pond whose wall gave way was not over capacity.

Environmental groups have long pressed for coal ash to be buried in lined landfills to prevent the leaching of metals into the soil and groundwater, a recommendation borne out by the 2006 E.P.A. report. An above-ground embankment like the one at Kingston was not an appropriate storage site for fly ash, said Thomas J. FitzGerald, the director of nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council and an expert in coal waste.

“I find it difficult to comprehend that the State of Tennessee would have approved that as a permanent disposal site,” Mr. FitzGerald said.

The T.V.A. will find an alternative place to dispose of the fly ash in the future, Mr. Francis said. He said that at least 30 pieces of heavy machinery had been put in use to begin the cleanup of the estimated 1.7 million cubic yards of ash that spilled from the 80-acre pond, and that work would continue day and night, even on Christmas. The plant, which generates enough electricity to support 670,000 homes, is still functioning, but might run out of coal before the railroad tracks are cleared.

About 15 houses were affected by the flood, Mr. Francis said, and three would likely be declared uninhabitable. “We’re going to make it right,” he said. “We’re going to restore these folks to where they were prior to this incident.”

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, Laura Niles, said the agency was overseeing the cleanup and would decide whether to declare Kingston a Superfund site when the extent of the contamination was known.

United States coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year, the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste. That is enough to fill more than a million railroad coal cars, according to the National Research Council.

Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps.

For instance, in Anne Arundel County, Md., between Baltimore and Annapolis, residential wells were polluted by heavy metals, including thallium, cadmium and arsenic, leaching from a sand-and-gravel pit where ash from a local power plant had been dumped since the mid-1990s by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Maryland fined the company $1 million in 2007.

As it grew dark in Kingston, a hard rain enveloped Roane County, rendering the twin smokestacks of the steam plant, as locals refer to it, barely visible amid the dingy clouds.

Angela Spurgeon, a teacher and mother of two whose dock was smothered in the ash-slide, said she was worried about the health effects, saying that on the night of the accident everyone was covered in sludge.

“The breathing is what concerns me, the lung issues,” Ms. Spurgeon said. “Who knows what’s in that water?”

Felicity Barringer and Robbie Brown contributed reporting.


  1. I’ve heard a lot of left-progressives, those who espouse socialism but not necessarily Marxism, defend Obama’s recent administration picks as a tactical maneuver. Essentially, their arguement is that while Obama’s selections are middle-of-the-ground (Richardson, Clinton), or center-right (Gates), or center-left (Donovan, Duncan, Solis), the program he will inaugurate will be ‘leftists’. I agree that Obama’s presidency has the potential to be left of his cabinet picks but, (1) that’s not a guarantee; and (2) the main point, Obama’s ‘radical’ proposals would be rehashed Keynesianism or at-best mixed Marxian-Keynesian ideas like the Tobin tax. In the long term, Obama has three options: (1) do nothing, keep the neo-liberal status quo oil economy and quicken America’s race towards economic barbarity; (2) develop a new economic-conceptual paradigm, one of “green economics” with massive Keynesian-esque public works programs to (a) rebuild failed infrastructures; (b) rebuild “green”, i.e. with principles of conservation and efficiency; and (c)create new green infrastructures. This “green program” could never be what social ecologists and eco-socialist propose, nor even the policies of groups like the Green Party, but a recuperated version of the latter’s programme; or 3) abdicate his role in capitalism for a revolutionary one.

    Option 3 is the show option, the one that will not occur except under the most exceptional circumstances.
    Option 1 is a road to political and economic death, and barbarity for nine-tenths of the population. I think some would make this is the best option for the left because it creates a revolutionary situation. I’m skeptical about this arguement. I’m willing to hear there arguement but I would posit that if America sunk into economic barbarity we would reproduce the conditions of the Great Depression, which, was politically active but, ultimately, non-revolutionary.

    Option 2, from both Obama’s perspective and the perspective of the bourgeois class (which are not synonymous), is the most reasonable approach. The next four-to-eight years, for the Marxist critiquistas will center upon Obama’s shortcomings as a ‘green’ president and the relation between Obama’s programme and the ordinary lives of working people.

    Comment by Milano — December 26, 2008 @ 6:36 am

  2. If capitalism is dead, why even bother with Milano’s (1) or (2)?

    Comment by micah pyre — December 29, 2008 @ 3:17 am

  3. Browner’s selection is a serious fax pas for Mr. Obama.

    From Carol Browner’s Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Browner

    “During Browner’s tenure, there were many reports from African American employees of racism directed at them from a network of “good old boys” who dominated the agency’s middle management layers.[16] The most known of these involved policy specialist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, who in 1997 filed suit against the agency; in 2000 the EPA was found guilty of discrimination against her and she was awarded $300,000.[16][17] Coleman-Adebayo said that Browner allowed the problems to persist rather than trying to clean them up: “She wasn’t at all sympathetic to complaints about civil rights abuses. We were treated like Negroes, to use a polite term. We were put in our place.”[16] In an October 2000 Congressional hearing on the matter,[18] Browner appeared near tears as she said minorities had tripled in the agency’s senior ranks during her time as administrator, but she was unable to explain why the culprits in Coleman-Adebayo’s case had not been dismissed and in some cases had been promoted.[16] A month earlier, Browner had asked for the Office of the Inspector General to linvestigate a statement by an African American environmental specialist that she had been ordered to clean a toilet in 1993 in advance of Browner’s arrival at an EPA event.[19] This followed a rally in which dozens of EPA employees protested what they saw as rampant bias at the agency.[19] Congressional dissatisfaction with the EPA situation and its treatment of Coleman-Adebayo led to passage of the No-FEAR Act in 2002, which discourages federal managers and supervisors from engaging in unlawful discrimination and retaliation.[17]”

    Comment by coupeditor — December 30, 2008 @ 1:04 am

  4. […] Carole Browner’s reputation in liberal circles as being a committed environmentalist, I found her record questionable but I suppose that is what recommended her to […]

    Pingback by Obama and mountaintop removal « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 2, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

  5. […] director Carole Browner’s reputation in liberal circles as being a committed environmentalist, I found her record questionable but I suppose that is what recommended her to […]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect: More on the Mountaintops « Kasama — June 2, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

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