08 July 2009


8 July 2009

I come from the South, and am proud of my heritage. It is a wonderful place with a natural warmth and generosity unknown in the rest of the USA. No place or people have clean hands throughout history, and my home is no exception. My sense is that the issues that plague us are all interrelated, and I count myself fortunate that I can devote myself to fighting the injustices that concern me the most.

Much as I love the South, the environmental regulations there are some of the worst in the country, thus industry has used it as a haven of permissiveness and reduced costs. Time to wake up. Early in the year I began discussions with my friend Hume from SouthWings, a group of pilots that fly environmentalists and legislators to see issues first hand from the air, about doing a flight in South Carolina. We are both very concerned about the consequences of burning coal for electricity, and have done numerous flights together over Mountaintop Removal (MTR) areas. Our other objective was to provide images to the Coastal Conservation League of whatever they are currently fighting. These are both fantastic organizations that deserve your support.

Coal is bad from the beginning to the end: the MTR extraction process is destroying vast stretches of some of America’s final virgin forest and watershed areas, the combustion is one of the primary causes of global warming and releases more toxics and heavy metals into our environment than I have breath to mention, and lastly is the fly ash issue. If you don’t know about what happened at the TVA coal plant in Kingston, TN just after Christmas, you should: the largest industrial disaster in US history. When coal is burned, the exhaust coming up the smokestack is laden with tremendous amounts of the nastiest stuff known to man. The energy companies are required to scrub that effluent, the most common method being to spray a “slurry” of gypsum through it which captures much of the particulate matter. The resulting mixture is known as fly ash, and its disposal is essentially unregulated- generally power plats keep it in unlined “impoundments” close to the plant.

“Why is this important to me?” you might wonder. Glad you asked. Chances are pretty good that one of the 800 coal fired generators in the USA is close to your home; and chances are they have a big wad of fly ash slurry separated from the water supply by a poorly made earthen dam. (Coal generators are always built next to a water body to supply them with the fresh water they need for cooling). So, like the unfortunate residents who live downstream of the TVA power plant in Kingston, you are in danger of having that nastiness spill into the waterway near you and even if it does not cover your house with toxic waste, you will never eat the fish from, swim in, or enjoy that water body again. And let’s not even talk about the possibility of all those toxins contaminating your well, even if they don’t spill.

So back to the airplane. Hume was delayed leaving Asheville by a mechanical issue, and then had to fly the Nature Conservancy on a quick flight, so we were much later off the ground than I had hoped. Our first site is King Tract in Awendaw, a large undeveloped parcel that CCL is working to save. From there we went up to Lake Moultrie which has several Santee-Cooper coal fired power plants. The first had some really interesting fly ash, but the second was nothing short of amazing- a behemoth of belching, spewing global warming and toxic waste. The fly ash dump was spectacular: variegated tunnels of different liquids. I love it when the subject is simultaneously sinister and beautiful, and a toxic nightmare. Fly ash is a clear and present danger- one more essential reason not to burn coal.

From the Lake Moultrie area we navigate south to the North Charleston Industrial zone. Hume checks in with the tower, as this is getting near to the Charleston airport, and the controller is obviously stressed because of the traffic volume. It is against the law to fly around power plants, and pilots that are willing to do it must always be on the right side of the air traffic controllers. The Nucor Steel Plant is close to our position, and still out of the traffic zone, so we circle, photographing the piles of rusted steel and various minerals.

Suddenly I spot something on fire, ask Hume to circle, and it turns out to be a machine with a large bowl of molten metal dumping its contents into a pit. It dumps once, and only a bit comes out, then backs off, goes to an adjacent pit and trys again. Suddenly the entire contents come out like a volcanic eruption and cause a virtual explosion, the likes of which neither of us have ever seen. To the east is the Williams Coal Plant, and though I have shot it before, I want to again, but it is closer to the airport, and Hume tells me that the tower is starting to divert traffic around us, a situation that clearly unnerves him. Oh the disappointment. Also on that side of the river are the Mead Westvaco Paper Mill, North Charleston incinerator, and various other sites on my list. Can’t do it all in this life, I guess.

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