The true cost of fossil fuels is getting harder to ignore.

When a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, killing 11 workers and unleashing a catastrophic spill, the coal-mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners hadn’t yet faded from public view.

As soon as the extent of BP oil disaster began to sink in, the media correctly started comparing it to the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.

But the coal industry has endured its own share of “Exxon Valdez” moments over the past decade. Burning coal produces “fly ash” (a waste byproduct that contains arsenic and other toxins), which is stored in vast containment pools. When these pools spill, they poison the soil, kill aquatic life, and contaminate local water supplies.

For example, hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in Kentucky were contaminated in 2000 by a spill that tainted the water supply for 27,000 people. In 2008, an even larger spill in Tennessee dumped out more than 500 million gallons of coal waste, contaminating 400 acres of land.

Each of these coal-ash accidents, like the BP oil disaster, released an exponentially larger volume of toxic waste into the environment than the Exxon Valdez did. For that reason, each deserves to become just as notorious. Moreover, each should, like Exxon Valdez, serve as a cultural touchstone and catalyst for change.

What can be done? Plenty.

We can start with stronger regulation of the fossil-fuel companies that are causing the damage. In the last decade, the regulation of fossil fuels grew too lax and enforcement waned. Just like in the banking industry, disasters result from the lack of oversight. The Obama administration is starting to reverse that trend.

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may regulate coal ash. Two competing regulations, one defining coal ash as what it is (hazardous waste), and a weaker one, supported by the industry (essentially household waste), are up for public comment right now. Anyone drinking the water near a coal plant in Appalachia can tell you: We need to go with the stronger definition.

In the case of oil companies, as The Wall Street Journal has reported, a simple remote control shut-off device–mandated by law in other countries practicing offshore drilling–could have prevented the BP oil disaster. The United States doesn’t require these devices. We should. We should also strongly consider ending offshore drilling.

These are just two examples of ways to use federal regulation to protect us all from the worst impacts of fossil-fuel companies. That’s the first step.

Beyond regulation, it’s time to end the massive subsidies currently enriching the fossil-fuel industries and making their disasters possible. The Obama administration has taken some of the right steps. It’s calling for cutting coal subsidies by $2.3 billion. It wants to reduce subsidies for oil and gas production by nearly $36 billion in 2011. Unfortunately, this proposal isn’t new. The administration proposed similar cuts for 2010, and Congress rejected them.

With $2.3 billion in revenues last year, Massey Energy (the company involved in the West Virginia explosion) reported profits of $104 million–twice its 2008 earnings. BP, a multinational corporation formerly known as British Petroleum, posts reported jaw-dropping profits of around $93 million a day. These companies don’t need any more help from the American taxpayer.

Instead, it’s time to redirect those federal investments toward renewable energy and energy efficient technologies that don’t endanger our rivers and streams, can’t wipe out the livelihoods of entire coastal communities, and don’t threaten the lives of the men and women who work to produce energy for America.

It’s time to level the playing field for cleaner energy.

Andrew Korfhage is the online and special projects editor for Green America.

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