Tennessee Coal Ash Spill Much Larger Than Reported



Experts are calling the coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States. Tennessee Valley Authority officials initially said that nearly 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash spilled last Monday when an earthen wall gave way at the Kingston Fossil Plant west of Knoxville. However, an aerial survey released last Thursday showed the amount was closer to 5.4 million cubic yards. This has been reported as enough to flood 3000 acres one foot deep. This is much larger than the amount TVA officials initially said was in the pond to begin with. That amount was claimed at around 2.6 million cubic yards.

The ash pond was next to the Emory River and near a residential area when the sludge spilled. Three houses were destroyed and several others damaged. The muddy ash also spilled into the river, which feeds into a treatment plant for drinking water. Water levels tested near the spill show elevated amounts of lead and thallium. A spokesman for the TVA says that thallium can caused nervous and reproductive system disorders and birth defects. These are usually filtered out by the treatment plant, but the levels of these metals were very high when measured. However, arsenic and mercury were barely detectable. The Environmental Protection Agency said that the iron and manganese content in the water exceeds that safety limit for water set by the agency, but that the water was safe to drink miles downstream from the spill.

While TVA officials claim that the ash is not harmful and residents have not been warned of the potential dangers, the high levels of heavy metals and carcinogens that have been shown to be in coal ash may become more of a problem when the ash dries out. A spokeswoman from the TVA says someone would have to eat the ash, or “get it in your body” for it to cause harm, which is exactly what will happen when people breathe this in.

A cleanup has been ongoing, but residents are concerned that it is not enough. Those who live around the area claim the TVA is simply “throwing darts” at the problem and that there was no contingency plan in place for this exact situation. They are also stunned by the size of the spill and that authorities were off by so much in their estimate of the spill.

Environmentalists have been arguing for years that coal ash should be stored in lined landfills due to the presence of contaminants that leach into groundwater and can poison the surrounding environment. Most coal plants around the country store coal ash in unlined embankments and ponds. Since coal plants need water to operate, most are near rivers. Some areas recycle coal ash as fill material.

There is no word on what caused the embankment to collapse, other than the “suggestion” that heavy rain and freezing temperatures played a role. Testing is ongoing to see what other sorts of chemicals may be present in the water. Until then, many residents are left to stare at boulder sized blocks of ash and dead fish around their homes and hope the authorities are telling the truth when they claim there is little risk.