Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas, Knoxville

This is from the New York Times:

A day after a spill sent a vast amount of toxic coal sludge over a wide area in Eastern Tennessee, state environmental officials struggled Tuesday trying to assess the damage in hopes that water supplies were not harmed by heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic.

A Tennessee Valley Authority employee surveyed a home on Tuesday after the release of sludge from a power plant.

The Tennessee Valley Authority estimated that 1.7 million cubic yards of fly ash, a byproduct of coal incineration that contains the heavy metals, broke through an earthen retention wall at a T.V.A. power plant early Monday morning near Kingston, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. Four to six feet of ash covered 250 to 400 acres in the area.

The sludge damaged a dozen houses, pushing one off its foundation, and caused the evacuation of 22 residences, the authorities said. It flowed into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water to millions of people downstream. Video news reports showed dead fish lining the banks of a nearby waterway.

Environmentalists said the spill, more than 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, belied the notion of the “clean coal” technology that the industry has spent millions to promote.

The ash came within yards of the home of Deanna Copeland, a customer service worker, and enveloped her dock, she said. Pieces of her neighbor’s house were in her yard. “To see this happen on the week of Christmas, it’s devastating,” Ms. Copeland said. “People are pretty upset. The big question now is, What’s T.V.A. going do to fix things?”

The authority, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency were awaiting the results of soil and water tests, officials said.

A sample taken near the intake for the water supply of Kingston met standards for drinking water, said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. He said heavy rain and freezing temperatures were probably to blame for the breach.

Jeremy Heidt of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said barriers had been constructed to prevent the ash from reaching the Tennessee River.

The report from the most recent inspection of the retention wall, in October, was not yet complete, but a preliminary report showed that a “wet spot” was found, indicating “a minor leaking issue,” according to a fact sheet released by the authority.

The Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate fly ash as a hazardous waste material but is considering doing so, said Laura Nilles, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! offers the following report:

Parts of Tennessee remain buried under toxic sludge today after a major disaster at a coal plant. A forty-acre pond containing toxic coal ash has collapsed, spilling out millions of gallons of coal ash.

Environmentalists say the spill is more than thirty times larger than the Exxon Valdez, but the story has received little national attention. Greenpeace is calling for a criminal investigation.
(Read More)

Will these stories be more and more common in our quest to go after all the fossil fuels we can with little regard to environmental consequences?


  1. Thanks for posting this, John.

    In addition to the run-of-the-mill heavy metals, fly ash contains appreciable amounts of radioactive thorium and uranium. By some miracle of regulation, coal ash is exempt from EPA standards covering radioactive waste.
    I'm not ringing the alarm bell with any news that isn't already well-known (see:, but just trying to add to the impetus to get us off fossil fuels. Sooner is better than later.
    I'll need more educating before I can believe there's any such thing as clean coal.

  2. Unfortunately this isn't the first or last time this kind of crap has happened. Look up Massey Energy if your want to get pissed about this some more.

    Clean coal is a joke. I wish it wasn't I have friends in the coal business, from the mines to the offices. I only hope that places like WV, eastern KY, and TN will take a hard look at the damage that has already be done and shore up the slurry ponds that pock the landscape.

  3. The scientist in me says that there is no such thing as clean burning fossil fuel. It's all relative, some are "cleaner" than others. They use a lot of coal here, you see piles of it in every small town. They also don't have any of those "pesky" coal mine safety rules either, it's sad. I have no idea what kind of coal this is, I do know we haven't seen the sun for weeks because of air quality. Unfortunately, one thing I've learned is, we don't change until we have to. I don't see alternate sources of energy until the existing ones run out. The exception would be if they develop one that is cheaper. We are killing ourselves and our planet.

    I am sorry for all those people in Tenn. that are having to deal with that disaster.

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  5. The pessimist says: in a word, "Yes", to your last question. I see no evidence that we will learn before it is too late. Immediate exploitation is too deeply rewarded by our system, and we're only human. If you heap reward on me for making terrible decisions, I'll make terrible decisions. If every time I did heroin, you handed me ten thousand dollars, I'd be pretty likely to do heroin. If every time someone pulls some sludge out of the ground and burns it, we hand them billions of dollars in subsidies and our consumer dollars, they'll absolutely keep doing it.