Saturday, December 27, 2008

Weighing in

I dislike shopping at Wal-Mart. There are sundry reasons: The crowds, lack of personalized attention and service, jammed aisles, screaming kids (both of which are covered under "crowds" but deserve a category of their own."

Mostly, I dislike it because it's throwing money at a conglomerate that has more than its officials know what to do with. So they do what most haughty offiicials do: Make their employees' lives miserable with paltry wages and benefits and lower their prices so that any small business finds it impossible to compete.

The Evil Empire. The Great Satan. They all add up to Wal-Mart.

Yet I still shop there. I'm miserable the whole time I glide my shopping cart through its big-box interior and pay what's usually a three-figure amount at the register that I waited for two weeks to approach.

There's a reason: On my meager salary, it would be fiscally irresponsible of me not to try and save money anywhere I can. And in my town, unfortunately, Wal-Mart gives me the most bang for my buck.

My shopping habits have very little to do with what's been going on in my backyard this week.

Or do they?

Anyone who has opened a newspaper, flicked on a TV or clicked onto Yahoo! news knows about the coal-ash sludge that exploded in East Tennessee on Monday. A once-pristine area that looked over what I've always believed to be a nasty waterway is now nasty itself -- buried under tons of coal ash, a byproduct of the coal-burning Kingston TVA Fossil Plant.

My heart breaks for the families who have been displaced by this tragedy. Less than a week ago, these folks were making plans for the holidays -- only to find themselves displaced, their Christmases anything but merry.

The country turned its head at first -- then realized there was a goldmine underneath the talc-like chemicals that polluted the landscape and waterways in Roane County. The national media paraded in -- CNN, NBC, The New York Times.

The environmentalists also came. How could TVA allow this to happen? It's dangerous. Coal ash carries toxins. The ecosystem of the Tennessee River has been destroyed.

Bloggers, both locally and nationally, are also on their soapboxes of indignation. How could this happen? TVA is Satan. Oh, my god, they're working to unblock the railway to bring in more coal that will produce even more ash!

I love the environment. I refuse to litter, and I berate anyone who does in my presence. I grumble when my path along I-40 takes me past the fossil plant, especially in the colder months when discharges from the smokestacks are extremely visible. I've often wondered how clear the Tennessee, Emory and Clinch rivers would have been, had it not been for TVA and nearby Oak Ridge plants polluting them. I've been sickened when fishermen, obviously bothered by the visual, tell me about fish with oozing sores on them.

The environment near this steam plant hasn't been a mecca of cleanliness for some time, folks. Not in my lifetime, and probably not in my parents' lifetimes.

The reality is that TVA will continue to produce electricity at Kingston, and we'll continue to use it. It's like the Wal-Mart analogy: It's the cheapest way.

The computer I'm using at this precise moment is powered by TVA electricity, probably generated at the Kingston Fossil Plant. If you're in the South and reading this, your computer is probably powered likewise. The printer you used, if I'm vain enough to think you might have printed this off to share with a friend, is most likely powered by TVA energy.

A lot of the bloggers and environmentalists derailing TVA on the information superhighway are also using computers powered by TVA. They may have laptops with batteries, but those batteries are likely charged by ... yep.

Journalists in the area covering the story are also consuming TVA power. Their hotel rooms have electrical lights, TVs and, most likely, water heaters. That is, unless they're roughing it at a campground -- and I can't see NBC's correspondent sleeping in a pup tent, can you?

We're dependent on electricity -- TVA electricity. The only way to stop it is to call your power company and have them take off our meters. Our ancesters lived without electricity, but I doubt many of us would take the leap. I'll go ahead and be the first to admit that I'm not doing it.
There are cleaner way of producing electricity. Those methods, however, aren't affordable to most of us. And with the cleanup TVA is facing, my bet is that they're not affordable to the federal government, either.

(Of course, we know who will be paying for that. If you have any doubt, look in a mirror. It'll probably be on your next bill.)

I'll keep grumbling when I have occasion to drive by the smokestacks on I-40. And I'll continue to complain when I get my utility bill. But I like my computer, TV, washing machine and hot water too much to be proactive. And I'm too poor to go to solar or wind.

That's the Wal-Mart -- and TVA -- way.

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