Oil spill reminiscent of coal ash disaster

The story is all too familiar: Big business being oblivious to the harm they can cause not just us but the environment in which we live. Just last year BP suggested that an accident leading to a massive crude oil spill was all but impossible. Yet, it happened. A blowout from a riser pipe a mile below the water’s surface is pouring as much as 60,000 barrels of oil into ocean every day. The spill is so massive it is expected to be far larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which about 10 million gallons poured into the ocean. The ecological and economic effects could be devastating to an area still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

The last “worst environment disaster” our country has witnessed was also at the hands of big business. Reports show that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was warned that the impoundment pond at its Kingston, Tennessee, plant was weak in areas and that a breach was likely, yet those concerns fell on deaf ears. In December 2008, those fears were realized when the Kingston coal ash pond ruptured, spilling more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash on to a neighboring community. The sludge knocked houses from their foundations, damaged property and contaminated the Emory River.

The physical damages were just the tip of the iceberg. Families were displaced but the greatest concern comes from the long-term effects of the sludge. Coal ash contains heavy metals and toxins that can cause serious health consequences such as liver disease, neurological problems and cancer. Many in the area said they suffer from heightened anxiety and breathing problems since the spill. Some, including a toddler, have tested positive for heavy metal in their bloodstream. Coal ash sickens and kills wildlife. And it devastates communities that once touted water recreation and pristine landscapes. The TVA cleanup effort is expected to span more than three years and cost more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile, workers are feverishly trying to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf and to contain it as much as possible. Only time will tell how much damage it will cause or how long it will take for the land, the wildlife and the business that rely on it to be restored. Perhaps it’s time big business learns a lesson and focuses more on preventing such disasters than waiting until they happen to address them.