Earlier this month I paddled with soon to be new friends, seasoned fishermen, and a host of other nature lovers from across Georgia to tour the coal ash ponds along the banks of Lake Sinclair. Four coal ash ponds dot the shores, containing within them the toxic waste produced from coal-fired power plants. In some cases, no more than fifty yards away from the water, tens of tons of toxic coal ash are held by unlined pits and earthen levies.
In addition to the danger posed simply by the proximity of the waste to the water, untreated waste water has at times been pumped directly into the lake, and in heavy rains, overflow from these ponds drains into the lake to prevent the infrastructure of the holding ponds from failing. Even in their best condition, unlined pits and earthen levies leak.
This is a problem. Lake Sinclair is the primary source of drinking water for the citizens of Baldwin County, Milledgeville, and other communities throughout the Altamaha Watershed. Communities like this depend on their water, not only for drinking, but also for recreation and food. This waste has the potential to dramatically damage ecosystems beyond repair, and it sits within throwing distance of the water.
The current proposals underway to address this situation dewater the ponds, leaving the solid waste capped in place, in a single unlined pit that would remain on the bank of Lake Sinclair. This solution alone is problematic. However, even if we work to create a policy the ensures that coal ash will be stored in lined pits far away from our water, it will not be enough. It is not enough to store our waste differently and continue to rely on power produced from fossil fuels. We must both work to ensure that the waste we have already produced is stored appropriately, while also working to transition to renewable energy at every level of society.
The farmer and writer Wendell Berry expresses this concern best:
“The difficulty with mechanically extractable energy is that so far we have been unable to make it available without serious geological and ecological damage, or to effectively restrain its use, or to use or even neutralize its wastes. From birth, right now, we are carrying the physical and the moral poisons produced by our crude and ignorant use of this sort of energy. And the more abundant the energy of this sort that we use, the more abounding must be the consequences.”
We are approaching the end of Lent, a season in which Christians around the world abstain from practices and indulgent materiality to embrace a disciplined posture of self-reflection and spiritual realignment. During this time, it is not uncommon for individuals to discover that there are practices or habits that they should permanently abandon. We change our rhythms to live better lives, and to commune more honestly with God and each other. Perhaps, as a society, it is time that we apply this idea to coal and other fossil fuels. Perhaps it is time that we leave behind practices, and likewise energy sources, that are in their very essence toxic, in order to pursue ways of being that are more equitable, ethical, and faithful.
 Wendell Berry, “The Use of Energy” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 282.
coal ash, energy efficiency, sustainable energy policy