"Clean" coal ash flood may make new Superfund site (Update #4)

Latest link updates are at the bottom of the page.
Update #2 & 3: New links added.
Update #1: New information included below the cut and some corrections below.

A major environmental disaster occurred yesterday, but few news outlets outside Tennessee appear to be covering it: 2.6 million cubic yards (about 525 million gallons) of fly ash sludge poured out from behind an earthen embankment at the Kingston coal plant (source: The Tennessean). S&R’s Wendy Redal blogged about the October, 2000 Massey Energy coal slurry flood earlier this month – this ashslide is bigger, and while it’s more solid, it still covers 400 acres in up to 6 feet of toxic coal ash.

To put this into scale with the Exxon Valdez spill, this coal ash release is presently estimated to be 48 times larger (in volume) and as dangerous. The release is on a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides water to millions of people in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky before joining up with the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Update #1: According to the TVA, it’s not accurate to directly compare the estimated 2.6 million cubic yards of material released with a liquid release like that of the October, 2000 slurry flood because this was more of a landslide/mudslide and has not – yet – affected the water quality of the Emory River (as of this AM). The TVA is monitoring water quality at 11 locations and the water quality was still within EPA standards for drinking water – except that there’s now evidence of fish dying downstream. (Thanks to Bill Kovarik for getting this info from TVA.)

How bad this will be ultimately will be determined by how fast it can be cleaned up, how much of the material ends up in the water supply, etc. In some ways, the fact it happened during the winter instead of during spring rains is probably a saving grace – the TVA will have more time to clean it up before the water pollution gets really bad.

This quote from the Tennessean puts this into some perspective:

Viewed from above, the scene looked like the aftermath of a tsunami, with swirls of dirtied water stretching for hundreds of acres on the land, and muddied water in the Emory River.

The Emory leads to the Clinch, which flows into the Tennessee.

Workers sampled river water Monday, with results expected back today, but didn’t sample the dunelike drifts of muddy ash.

That could begin today, officials said, and the potential magnitude of the problem could make this a federally declared Superfund site. That would mean close monitoring and a deep, costly cleanup requiring years of work.

“We’ll be sampling for metals in the ground to see what kind of impact that had,” said Laura Niles, a spokeswoman for the EPA in Atlanta.

“Hopefully, it won’t be as bad as creating a Superfund site, but it depends on what is found.”

Here’s a bunch of resources about this story that desperately need to not go unnoticed – please pass them around:

(Update #2) A post by Wendy Redal on this same subject, over at the Center for Environmental Journalism’s blog. (Update #4) The post has been updated with a number of links as well, including one to Grist and another to the TVA’s official statement on the ashslide

Twitter feed (thanks to Amy Gahran, who’s written up some more how Twitter and blogs are getting the news out even though CNN, NYTimes, et al aren’t covering it yet.)

(Update#2) WBIR’s first article (with many videos), second article showing dead fish that may or may not be related to the ashslide, and aerial video (after the advertisement):

The Knoxville News Sentinal’s first story, and its second story.

James Brugger’s blog on this story at the Louisville Courier-Journal

YouTube video of the spill:

It’s Getting Hot In Here blog on this spill

David Sasson at SolveClimate blogged on this news as well

Associated Press story

WYMTnews story

(Update #2) Greenpeace-USA blog post on this ashslide

(Update #3) In addition, DC-Greenpeace is already calling for a criminal investigation of this ashslide.

(Update #3) Kevin Grandia of DeSmogBlog has a short post up on this.

(Update #3) Pete Altman of the NRDC has a blog up on this as well, with emphasis on the toxicity of coal fly ash.

(Update #4) Another rundown of other sites is at The Pump Handle blog.

(Update #4) The Roanoke Times New River Notebook blog has a rundown as well, along with some good links to the EPA and TVA.

(Update #4) Free Speech News Radio has done a piece on this story as well.

I’ll have a great deal more to say about this over the next few days, focusing most on the toxic threat of fly ash (and how it’s used and abused, and how it’s radioactive, etc.) and why combustion byproducts like fly ash are part of the reason why “clean” coal is complete and utter bullshit, even if 100% of the carbon dioxide was capture and sequestered. And in related news, Brad at the Wonk Room has a new piece up about how a pro-coal astroturf group is looking for bloggers to echo bogus “clean coal” rhetoric.

The Exxon Valdez was terrible. This could be much, much worse.

27 replies »

  1. We suffered a coal ash slurry spill of about 100 million gallons from the PP&L power plant on the PA side of the Delaware River in August ’05. It was horrible.

    This sounds much worse and in a much smaller stream. It’s truly sickening.

  2. what does it mean for homeowners (especially ones on the peninsula) if the area does become a superfund site? Will we lose them?

  3. Good question, WB42. I’m not sure, although it can’t do your property values any good.

    I suspect a great deal will depend on how much, and how fast, the slide can be cleaned up. It’ll really be a problem if the slide’s not cleaned up before spring (assuming that Tennessee has the same spring rains that Colorado has and that I remember from college in Pennsylvania).

  4. Thanks Brian, our family’s home made it fine (you can see it in the vid above) but we’re worried it could be lost in the long haul. Rumors, and that’s all they are at this point, are circulating that TVA is going to buy everyone on the street out. We really don’t know because they haven’t been by to talk to anyone. It would be a shame, between my father and grandfather, we’ve owned property out their for nearly 40 years.

    As far as the getting things cleaned up by spring goes, TVA is able to regulate the water levels on Watts Bar (and other lakes) with its dam system. I’m sure they’ll try to keep it as low as they can for as long as possible, although I doubt it will help that much. Getting heavy equipment on the river bed will be nearly impossible anyway. Whatever happens it will be a long, noisy process.

  5. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no such thing as clean coal. It’s filthy and destructive when it’s mined. It’s filthy and destructive when it’s processed. And it’s filthy and destructive when it’s burned. Trying to “clean it up” will only make it more expensive and spread around the filth.

  6. Great coverage here. Thanks. At “The amount of coal-ash sludge released Monday when an earthen dike failed at a Kingston Fossil Plant retention pond was triple what TVA has estimated.”

    I saw that Robert Kennedy Jr’s law firm Kennedy Madonna, LLP, and the Levin Papantonio Law Firm have joined to investigate the Tennessee Coal Spill and will pursue claims on behalf of property owners.