Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008: Arguably the Worst Case of Environmental Degradation in US History

Most people can recall or have at least heard of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. This event is cited as one of the most devastating environmental disasters to occur in US history, receiving much mediated and public attention. Yet, why is it that over the past few weeks there has been waning discourse about a recent coal spill in Tennessee that is estimated to be 50 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill?

Aerial Footage of the Spill:


Just recently on December 22 of 2008, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash flooded out of a TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) Kingston Fossil Plant in an Eastern Tennessee town just forty miles West of Knoxville. For those unfamiliar with this particular culprit known as coal ash, it is the leftover residue from coal-fired power plants that generate electricity and expel pollutants.  In order to prevent the ash from entering into and contaminating the atmosphere, it is mixed with water so that it can be kept in retaining pools.

This particular TVA plant had been accumulating waste for over half a century, housing sludge that staggered 65 feet into the air, spreading over 100 acres prior to when the dam burst in December. As imagined, the consequences of this spill were, and still are, devastating to the surrounding communities. The expansive outflow of sludge has damaged around twenty-two homes and has reportedly spilled into two tributaries of the Tennessee River, the Emory and Clinch Rivers. The Tennessee River marks a major source of drinking water for not only people in East Tennessee, but in Alabama, Kentucky, Chattanooga, and Western regions of Tennessee as well. Concerned yet? The T.V.A. isn’t—their website refers to the spillage as an “ash slide”, making the catastrophe sound rather harmless.

So, the big question is, why has a story of such magnitude been so downplayed in the media? I know that there are big stories to cover in the news right now, from the conflicts between Israeli and Palestinian forces to a tanking American economy. But, this is arguably the biggest environmental disaster in United States’ history! This story needs to be unveiled—questions need to be asked and action needs to be taken. The main question I asked earlier—why is the story going unreported—directly leads into the conflict surrounding the hazards of coal ash. When it comes to the subject of coal residue, the majority of people engaged in the topic believe that coal ash contains no harmful toxins, and is perfectly safe. This likely explains why this story has been shoved under the rug. Yet, it would be misleading to say that there are not people concerned about this issue, namely environmentalists and Tennessee residents who believe that coal ash is harmful. If there is a present concern, the question should be examined: is coal ash really as harmless as many claim it to be?

There is a major dissent over the dangers of coal ash. Eric Schaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project, says, “The prevailing myth is that it’s safe. We have EPA buying into that for years and really refusing to regulate this material for what it is, which is highly toxic ash that unleashes metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury into drinking water and rivers and creeks.” Scientific American published in article in December 2007, claiming that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. These concerns are withheld amongst the minority, while the majority opinion holds that coal ash is a safe residue that does not even need to be federally regulated. The EPA initially supported this belief in the early 1990s, but has since decided that the waste should be regulated, and further studies should be conducted to investigate the potential toxicity of the substance. To this day, there has been no consensus concerning wither coal ash is harmful enough to be a public concern.

Yet, in this particular instance, there is a solid evidence to support the negative and harmful effects of coal ash in its various forms. As of January 1, 2009, independent test results ,conducted at the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry laboratories at Appalachian State University, showed significantly elevated levels of toxic metals (including arsenic, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium) in samples of slurry and river water. John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A. said that the high levels of lead and thallium can cause birth defects and reproductive and nervous system disorders. The soil and ash that did not retreat into waterways have also been tested, but neither the E.P.A. nor other authorities have released results. People are concerned that if the coal is not picked up quickly, it will dry up and ash will be dispersed everywhere. There are existing federal studies which show that coal ash can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and carcinogens.

The potential side effects of coal ash can be found in numerous scientific studies, but without digging too deep into that topic, another question should be asked: how and when is this sludge getting cleaned up?
The EPA claims that the spill can be cleaned up in 4-6 weeks. Yet, an article recently released by Dave Cooper of the Huffington Post points out that, “If a dump truck can hold 20 cubic yards of dirt and ash, it will take 265,000 truck loads to haul away all the ash (they are taking it back to the power plant). If they fill one dump truck trip every 5 minutes and work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it will take about 2.5 years to clean up the spill. TVA has been telling the media it will be cleaned up in about 6 weeks – this is a ludicrous claim.”
But what’s the point in arguing over when it will be picked up if now reporters are claiming it is not going to be cleaned up at all? CNN recently reported on January 3, 2009, “Rather than try to gather up all the spilled ash, the TVA plans to lock it in place by planting seeds and covering it with mulch, said Bob Summers, the TVA’s operations section chief.” This updated article also reports that coal ash scooped up alongside roads and riverbanks show high levels of arsenic—levels high enough to trigger an EPA response, in theory at least. Is covering up sludge the right answer, especially if it will dry and reform back into dust? Supposedly arsenic dust?

The fact that this coal spill has been overlooked explains why there are so many conflicting answers to important questions. I urge you to further explore this story—ask questions and take necessary actions against any popular falsities. If this story gains momentum in the media, there might be a better chance at finding more answers about the dangers of coal residue. Furthermore, this environmental atrocity shows that coal-fired power plants go far beyond air pollution, and begs the question: can we honestly believe the media any further that there is such a thing as “clean coal”?

I appreciate all feedback on this topic-

Intern, Melissa Dison of Public Citizen

Learn more about the myths surrounding clean coal:


News sources consulted in this article: