Tennessee Coal Disaster: A Nightmare Before Christmas

Imagine an Olympic size swimming pool brimming with highly toxic waste.  Now imagine over 1,600 such sludge-filled pools -- or about a billion gallons.  That's how much liquified coal waste -- "fly ash" -- broke through an earthen dike at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant near Kingston, Tenn. just before midnight on Dec. 22, 2008 and flooded downstream communities.  Residents living near and along the Tennessee River (the drinking water source for millions of people in and around Chattanooga) were hit by a slow-motion, muddy 6-foot-high tsunami of nasty black coal waste that covered 400 acres. 

The TVA spill is more than 40 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.  Instead of oil covering pristine beaches, fly ash -- a byproduct of the coal-burning process containing mercury and dangerous heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, among many other potentially toxic and radioactive materials -- is now contaminating the river and its tribuataries...along with well water, wetlands, ponds, streambanks, fields, forests, playgrounds, backyards, houses and other property.

See the stunning aerial photos in the Flickr slide show below.  


The photos were provided by our local partner United Mountain Defense, which has had volunteers on the scene since day one of the disaster.  A while back we helped purchase water quality testing kits that UMD is putting to good use.  We also provided funds for video equipment, which they are using to document the massive spill -- see the video below.


It is difficult to grasp the scope of the disaster or to grapple with both the immediate and long-term environmental and public health consequences for the people now living this dirty coal nightmare.  A few homes were completely destroyed by the oozing sludge and more than 40 were damaged.  Remarkably, no one was killed or seriously injured.  But the risks posed by toxic contaminants in the water and in the air remain a huge health concern.  

This article today in the Disaster News Network sheds some light on the horrific situation.  As the story notes, the Kingston TVA plant keeps fly ash pools above ground.  Because of rapid residential growth in the area, there was little room for the plant to expand so rather than relocating, more than 50 years of ash was stacked into a wet mound extending 55-feet high.  Small breaches in the dike were repaired in 2003 and 2006, but TVA inspected it last January and  declared the dam within EPA's legal limits.  However, investigative reports by The Tennessean newspaper raise troubling information that TVA managers at the plant were well aware of the threat of a dangerous sludge pond blowout years ago, but they opted for a cheaper bandaid fix rather than spend the money required for extensive repairs. 

In the wake of this devastating spill, testing by EPA, TVA, and the Tennessee Department of Environmental Control shows elevated levels of mercury, thallium, and arsenic.  NRDC is assisting UMD in conducting its own extensive testing to ensure public safety.  Meantime, residents are being warned to avoid direct contact with the muck.  There is added concern, however, that as rainy weather gives way to dryer conditions, a new problem will emerge -- gray, powdery ash coating everything in its wake.  

While the toxic cleanup is underway, the plant -- which supplies electricity to Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia -- remains in operation.  Fly ash waste is simply being deposited in another pond.  Not an ideal situation by any measure, and certainly not a long-term solution to the growing problem of electrical power supplied by dirty coal.

Each year more than half of the 129 million tons of power plant ash generated in the United States is dumped into 600 or more landfills and surface impoundments like the one at TVA's Kingston Plant, according to government studies.  Although burning coal concentrates various toxic metals in the ash, inexplicably there are no federal standards for its disposal.

At least the TVA disaster last month in eastern Tennessee has gotten the attention of the new Congress.  This Thursday the powerful Senate Environment & Public Works Committee will conduct a hearing on the coal ash spill.  Already, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) has called for national standards to regulate the design, construction and other safety standards of coal-ash dams like the one that broke at the TVA power plant.  Rep. Rahall wants such dams to be subject to the same regulations that govern coal-slurry impoundments under the federal strip mine law.  Currently, coal ash landfills are not covered by the same standards, leaving regulation to state agencies, where standards, inspection staff and expertise are often lax.