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I remember my first thought when I read the papers on Dec. 23, the day after one of the biggest environmental disasters in our nation's history: "This is only the beginning."

The stories about the spill came out like the spill itself: slow at first, then in a huge, sudden avalanche of sad details. 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Power Plant burst through a dam near Harriman and spread over 300 acres of pristine shoreline along the Emory and Clinch Rivers.

(Editor's Note: This file presents news and information from the Copenhagen climate change conference on Dec. 17, distilled from news outlet reports. Check for updates during the day.)

<Update>: A leaked draft document at Copenhagen suggests that the political agreement being forged will allow the planet's temperature to rise so high that disastrous consequences will result.

Becoming a grandfather is cause for celebration, unless you're a coal-fired power plant.

Coal plants that predate the Clean Air Act have become the mules of air pollution—set in their ways and not liable to change. Exploiting their "grandfathered" status, these coal plants have refused to implement technologies that are currently available to reduce pollution.

Now, Congress seems determined to let these dinosaurs off the hook all over again.

Some top stories from the last week at Earthjustice...

The Copenhagen conference started off with a bang of optimism when the EPA announced that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. The cooperative spirit quickly fizzled after a draft agreement surfaced that apparently favors the interests of the U.S. and other wealthy nations. There’s more news by the hour: Be sure to check out our daily reports from Copenhagen, and analysis by two attending Earthjustice attorneys, Erika Rosenthal and Martin Wagner.

All the buzz from the conference nearly drowned out a disturbing, and related, piece of news: Shell Oil was granted conditional approval to drill exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea. Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe warned that the approvals outpace the science of what we know about Arctic waters.

On the same day that the EPA released its endangerment finding, Earthjustice challenged the agency on a toxin polluting the air in Appalachia, to the point where kids can’t play outside. It’s coal dust, and we think the coal plants that produce it should do something about it. 

Farm workers and their families will get some long-awaited help to deal with toxic pesticides poisoning the air around their homes and schools, thanks to a new EPA policy. Going forward, the EPA will assess the health risks posed by pesticide drift with the same standards by which pesticides in food are assessed. 

And finally, this week Earthjustice saved taxpayers $1.5 million!—and 4.3 million board-feet of old-growth forest in the Tongass to boot. This also means we kept a little C02 out of the atmosphere. Indeed, one of the least controversial ideas out of Copenhagen is also one of the simplest: don’t cut down trees.

Robert Byrd, the patriarch of the United States Senate, has been the champion and defender of the coal industry for decades, a staunch ally who could be depended on to look out for the interests of his constituents, many of whom work for or own coal operations.

But a massive sea change took place in early December with a statement issued by the senator, urging the coal industry to face the future, to stop blaming regulatory hurdles for its woes, to acknowledge the reality of climate change, and to get busy preparing for a lower-carbon future.

The senator, who has served nearly 57 years in the Congress, seemed particularly miffed that the coal industry had tried to persuade him and other coal-state legislators to block health-care reform unless coal got a free ride in any climate legislation, an idea the senator called "morally indefensible." He also suggested that support for mountaintop removal mining is evaporating in Washington, It's quite a statement, well worth reading, maybe saving. It's a turning point. You can read the statement, or listen to the senator reading it, here.

On the very same day that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared global warming pollution as a threat to human health, Earthjustice challenged the agency on an air pollution standard affecting folks in Appalachia.

Earthjustice, representing several clean air advocates, is calling on the agency to require coal preparation and processing plants to take any measures to limit the dangerous coal dust kicked up by trucks traveling on plant roads.

For Tim Bailey of Clinchfield, Virginia, a stronger standard could mean he and his family don't have to worry about all that coal dust near their home. It could also mean he doesn't have to set aside so much time a year to pressure wash coal dust from his property.

"Trucks from the prep plant kick up so much dust that a doctor has told me not to let my grandchildren play outside," said Bailey. "The EPA needs to put a stop to this so that we can enjoy our homes again."

Some top stories from the last two weeks at Earthjustice...

The Copenhagen Climate Conference begins next week. President Obama will lead the U.S. delegation, and in anticipation of the conference, the Dalai Lama spoke about the need for governments to put global priorities first.

Studies on the effects of global warming abound; few offer good news. Polar ice is thinner than previously thought, and polar bears are struggling more than ever to survive—only one of many species seriously threatened by climate change. 

Our addiction to coal-fired power is at the heart of global warming. And as we know, coal plants are responsible for much more destruction. Almost a year ago, 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash flooded 300 acres along Tennessee’s Emory River. Now, despite this disaster, some companies are claiming that the location and contents of their toxic coal ash ponds should be left a mystery. Earthjustice disagrees.

Other mysteries, however, are quite welcome—like lonely stones sailing quietly across the desert.

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.