Travis, you are of course right that coal is cheap, cheap, cheap, and that most people are only concerned with the costs of things now, now, now.
Coal would be much more expensive if you made it pay for health, property, commercial, and environmental damages. We could probably both dig up numerous figures, some of them controversial. But a fairly direct and less controversial figure is that coal adds about 6 cents/kWh in health costs alone. Something to think about when Knoxville is competing for top spot in worst air quality in the nation again, and your kid has to go to the doctor again for his asthma. That Harriman plant is a big reason for Knoxville's bad air quality.
Environmentalists claim that many other forms of energy are already cheaper once you factor in all the externalities. Maybe or maybe not. I personally just hate coal. I'd rather see a mountain covered in oil wells than to see it torn down and dumped into the stream in the valley next to it. Oil wells can eventually come down, but that mountain and stream are gone forever. Nuclear waste can be buried under some mountain out West. ANY source of energy we can get is better than coal. There is nothing worse.
I think this failure to really consider all the costs of coal is kinda like most people buy their cell phones. A subsidized cell phone seems like a great deal right now at $50, but it looks a lot worse when you get locked into that 2-year contract for $80 a month. Or maybe it's more like Social Security, where we get the benefits now, but charge it to our kids and grand kids. Or maybe it's more like Medicare, for the same reasons. Or maybe it's like our current economic crisis, caused by a massive expansion of bad credit. These things are all great up front, but then long-term reality sets in.
In any event, this current Harriman disaster was brought on by the desire to do the job the cheapest way that TVA could get away with. I'm sure some TVA engineering group was well rewarded for showing how cheaply they could store that ash behind some cheap earthen dam. Again, cheap right now, but not cheap once the odds finally mature.
THIS JUST IN: I just read that the spill is now twice as large as they thought it was.