Tech by VICE

An Avalanche of Toxic Coal Waste Slammed Vietnam, and More Are on the Way

Coal power + climate change = more sludge tsunamis.

by Brian Merchant
Jul 30 2015, 7:30pm

Image: Screengrab, WeExpress

Days of intense rainfall in northern Vietnam led to flooding that has killed 17 people so far, according to the New York Times. Some 1,500 tourists had to be evacuated, and the national guard was sent in.

The floods also loosed an avalanche of coal ash, a toxic waste product generated by power plants, onto nearby villages, sending hundreds fleeing, knee-deep in polluted muck. The photos are harrowing, especially knowing that the sludge contains dangerous metals like arsenic, barium, cadmium, and selenium.

The poisonous sludge now also threatens to contaminate one of the nation's most popular landmarks, Ha Long Bay. So this:

Image, Wikimedia.

Risks being swamped by this:

Image, Wikimedia.

That's a picture of the fallout from the biggest coal ash disaster in history, the 2008 slurry spill that shook Kingston, Tennessee. These kinds of disasters are, sadly, on the rise, according to the Waterkeeper Alliance (WA), an environmental group that focuses on water pollution issues.

"The tidal wave of coal waste now flooding communities in Vietnam is history repeating itself," Donna Lisenby, WA's energy expert, tells me in an email. "Waterkeeper Alliance has worked on numerous coal waste spills since 2008. What is happening is also the sad future for many other communities nationally and globally if we keep burning coal, because it is the primary driver of climate change."

It's yet another feedback loop begat by climate change, and more ugly evidence we're living in the Anthropocene: The more coal we burn, the warmer and wetter—because warm air holds more moisture—it gets. The wetter it gets, the more it floods—and the likelier we are to see the toxic byproduct of all that recently burned coal come streaming down a mountainside, or knocking over houses in rural Tennessee.

That's because coal ash is often stored as a slurry, a mixture of fly ash and water, in containment ponds near the site of power plant. If the infrastructure, the walls or dike—or the mountain it's built on—collapses, the byproduct can pose a major hazard. "Coal waste facilities are ticking time bombs if they are not properly constructed to withstand large rainfall events," Lisenby said.

Often, of course, they are not. And despite the climate risks, developing nations like Vietnam, India, and China, are still building more and more coal plants—and more and more risky containment facilities. The trend's trajectory has already been established.

"Waterkeeper Alliance has experienced a dramatic rise in the number of coal related water spill disasters we have responded to," the group tells me.

So, behold yet another phenomenon that denizens of our climate-changing planet can look forward to: this is the age of toxic coal waste avalanches.