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Sierra Daily

Oct 21, 2010

Too Bad Coal Ash Isn't Red

Hungary_red_sludge_spill_200Reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal has a great essay on the invaluable Yale Environment 360 about the under-appreciated distortion of popular attitudes toward environmental dangers based on what we might call "perceived yuckiness." You're a lot more likely to be killed by a deer (because it causes your car to crash) thank by, say, a giant reticulated python, but death by python seems way more yucky, so we worry more about snakes than deer. Rosenthal's example is the horrific spill earlier this month of red sludge from a Hungarian aluminum plant's tailing pond, which she reported on for the New York Times. Ten people were killed, primarily by drowning, and more than 100 burned by the highly alkaline mud.

I was one of the reporters dispatched to     the site. For nearly a week, scenes of this jarring, red-coated vision of hell were splashed across the Internet and front pages and led the newscasts on television stations across the globe. Those images turned a formerly obscure industrial waste called “red mud” into a brief captivating symbol of environmental danger — even though, on the hierarchy of industrial wastes, “red mud” is not all that toxic.

But humans react much more to threats that look evil, like this waste from bauxite processing, than to more serious risks that our senses don’t see or don’t perceive as so jarring. It is harder to gin up outrage about invisible greenhouse gas emissions, or the relatively muted hues of cyanide containing waste from gold processing, or even coal mine tailings, which are monochromatic. It was far easier to be captivated by the vision of Kolantar’s neat stucco homes coated with red slime. The yuck factor was incredibly high.

Rosenthal's counterexample is a huge issue the Sierra Club is doggedly trying to bring to public attention--the ubiquitous ponds of coal-ash slurry left over from the burning of coal in power plants.

“Reporters were asking me, ‘Has anything like this ever happened here?’” David Graham-Caso, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, recalled this week.

“Well, yes, two years ago,” he said, referring to a massive coal ash sludge spillthat occurred days before Christmas, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. “In Tennessee, there were billions of gallons of toxic sludge washing up on peoples’ doorsteps.” It barely made the news. The problem: The lead villain was brown, the color mud was supposed to be, rather than blood red, which would have provided Roger Corman horror-film contrast.

It's not something to complain about, really--lurid disasters will always capture the imagination more than invisible ones, just as attractive candidates have an edge with voters. We can't get rid of our biases, but we can be aware of them.

--Paul Rauber 

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