The massive coal ash spill in Tennessee last week (about 100x larger in impact than the Exxon Valdez spill) proves a point that many environmentalists have been trying to make -- coal is just not clean. We've all heard the "clean coal" catch phrase so many times in so many political speeches that it begins to feel as if it's really true. But its not, not yet at least. And though the word's greatest scientists are working hard on a solution, a way to capture carbon at the source of the burn, the holy grail of "clean carbon" is at best a distant (and probably very expensive) possibility.

Back in January, the coal industry launched a massive marketing campaign to sway public opinion about "clean coal" spending upwards of $35 million dollars as reported by the Washington Post. In response to this wave of "cleanwashing" (yes I coined it so go ahead and quote me) one of the largest environmental coalitions was formed. Launching the "Reality Campaign," the coalition dispenses with the regular heavy-handed statistics and uses humor instead to combat the coal industry. Any time an environmentalist group gets comedic, I stand up and take notice. Here's one of their funny TV spots:

Led by the Alliance for Climate Protection, the coalition includes four of the largest environmental action groups in the US -- The Natural Resources Defense Council, The League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, The Sierra Club, as well as and many others.

The coalition also puts the "canary in the coal mine" metaphor to good use by featuring a very cute little animated canary that bumps into big facts about coal. It's important to point out that environmentalists are not opposed to the research and development of clean coal technologies. They just don't want the American people to get stuck with the bill. The coal and nuclear industries are so large and so profitable, it makes little sense that they receive government subsidies when fledgling technologies -- like Solar and Wind -- offer clean, market ready solutions which create more jobs and need much smaller subsidies.

The other problem with coal is monitoring. The coal industry itself has said that genuinely "clean" coal technology is 15 years off. But even then, the government will have to carefully monitor the plants to ensure they are in compliance. The reason why? Burning coal, in addition to being the leading cause of global warming, is horribly toxic. Coal sludge contains arsenic, mercury, chromium as well as floculants, the chemicals used to process coal, all of which are hazardous to human health. Coal sludge is usually buried in the ground but can easily seep into the water table, contaminating public water supplies, as is the case in West Virginia, the state hardest hit by the coal industry.

If you want all the gory details about the many hazards of coal, I recommend reading Antrim Caskey's thoroughly researched piece published on Alternet. The campaign might be successful. Dynergy just reported that they will be abandoning plans for five new coal plants under year-long pressure from the Sierra Club.

Environmentalist COAL-ition attacks Big Coal
Large coalition of environmental groups uses humor to fight misconceptions around 'clean' coal.