Mammoth Toxic Coal Ash Spill Near Knoxville

The largest environmental disaster of its kind has over 5 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash flooding an area of eastern Tennessee about 40 miles east of Knoxville. Although initially reported at 1.7 million cubic yards, it seems the wet coal ash , which poured out through a broken retaining wall from an unlined area, is actually more like three times that — enough to cover more than 3000 acres a foot deep in the sludge. Authorities claim the pond’s capacity was only 2.6 million cubic yards, leaving everyone wondering how they didn’t know that it was actually over twice that volume.

Tennessee Valley Authority, a Federally owned corporation put into existence in 1933 by F.D.R., owns the electric generating plant. Studies indicate that the TVA spends far less in maintenance than privately held power generation companies. Only about 5 percent of their gross revenues goes back to maintaining facilities, which was obviously not enough in this case, even though this plant is the largest of all the electrical generation facilities within the several states of its governance.

Water from the Emery River, which runs near the spill, has been tested and shows elevated levels of lead and thallium. These metals have been proven to cause birth defects, as well as nerve and reproductive system diseases. T.V.A. representative John Moulton said that those levels exceed safe limits for drinking, but that the metals could be filtered out by water treatment processes. Minimal levels of mercury and arsenic were also detected in the samples. Water samples taken several miles downstream of the spill showed that water safe to drink, but iron and manganese levels exceeded standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Oddly enough the E.P.A. governs taste and smell, but not potentially harmful health effects.

So far, no analytical data on the soil or the ash has been made available. T.V.A. officials are claiming that the ash is not harmful, but that statement only applies to touching it. The ash may easily be ingested and breathed in. Once within the body, it would definitely be toxic and dangerous. Federal studies state that coal ash has been shown to contain dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals and carcinogens. One of the obvious concerns is that, once the liquid subsides and the ash spill dries to powder, it will form dust on everything and be ingested by that method.

Round-the-clock cleanup efforts continue, but the majority of those efforts involve clearing roads and train tracks blocked by the sludge. Several skimmers have been installed on nearby rivers to catch a valuable component of the ash called cenospheres, used in manufacturing. An underwater dam intended to keep ash from moving downstream has been begun, but is still only 20% complete, and only catches ash which has settled to the bottom of the river.

Residents said they were stunned by the new figure for the size of the spill.

Angela Spurgeon, a resident affected by the ash, said “It upsets me to know that a number was given of what the pond could hold, and the number now is more than double.” It would seem that residents don’t feel the TVA has done much to address their concerns.

Coal ash can contaminate groundwater and poison aquatic environments. Many environmentalists believe the substance should be stored in lined landfills. This facility’s coal ash waste was merely separated from the river by soil burms acting as dikes. This practice is common across the country. Some even put coal ash out as fill material.

This spill’s pollutants will eventually find their way to the ocean, adding heavy metals, lead, and other toxins to the waters, endangering sea life and making the fish we eat more dangerous as well. It’s ironic that so much ado was made over supposedly Clean Coal during the elections, while these toxins continue to sit in unlined storage, seeping their dangers into the ground, rivers and water table. Once again we see some of the myriad dangers of fossil fuels and combustion engines.

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