Kingston, TN sings "Auld Lang Sludge" (Update #2)

Update #2: NASA’s Earth Observatory has false-color LandSat images of before and after the spill. Amazing shots. I’ll add them to the image slideshow rotation above when I have a chance.

Update#1: Appalachian Voices’ Frontporch blog is reporting that the independent water samples taken from the Emory River last week show that “[c]oncentrations of eight toxic chemicals range from twice to 300 times higher than drinking water limits.” The results are preliminary, but they’re so high – and in such conflict with official results – that the scientists and activists felt that releasing the data was very important. Here’s the official press release, a video on it, and a NYTimes article on it too. If you’re in the area and your community gets water from the Clinch River downstream of the Emory, I’d strongly recommend bottled water.

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas last week. Many of us here at S&R have been taking some time off from blogging as well, which is why it’s been days since the last update on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal (ash) in the stocking story. So it’s past time for another roundup of the latest news and opinion.

There have been a number of other link and news roundups, and a number of the more specific links I excerpt below come from these sites, so I figured it was only fair to start with them. The first is the new Wikipedia entry for the sludgeslide. The entry summarizes the event itself, the responses to it, and has a few lines on legal responses to the slide too. As with most Wikipedia entries, the 38 (as of the morning of 12/31/08) footnoted references are what make it so valuable.

knoxville_graphicThe best news coverage site, however, is by far the massive collection of links and original documents available at the Knoxville News Sentinel’s “full coverage” page. Images, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) documents in pdf format, videos, maps produced by the paper – it’s all here and pretty well organized. The paper’s own stories are presented most-recent-first so that visitors can find the latest news fast.

The Nashville Tennessean had the best early coverage of the spill, but they’ve fallen to second place recently. That said, though, they’ve still got a lot of great stuff up at the TennesseanGreen environment section – it’s just harder to navigate through. Again, though, lots of images and news articles.

Fellow SEJer Tim Thornton has a roundup of the news from around the web at the New River Notebook blog associated with The Roanoke Times. Tim has been following the coal ash issue for quite some time, with special interest in how it affects Virginia and the New River. I have more to say about that below.

Bill Kovarik is the editor (and another SEJer) of the Appalachian Voices environmental news site, and the site’s Frontporch blog has been commenting on this story since it first broke on December 22. They’ve got some information that I’ve not seen anywhere else online, like a list of the TVA’s current board members.

Frontporch put me onto a massive resource put together by the activist group If I’d found them sooner in my research for this roundup, it probably would have saved me quite a bit of time. Unlike most news-related coverage sites and blogs, these folks have collected news from lots of different sites and put links to it all. It looks to be updated on a daily basis, making it a very good resource if you’re not willing or able to hunt through all the other sites around the web.

And finally, a new addition this morning to this list was a link roundup by David Roberts at the Gristmill blog. The focus of David’s roundup is on the response of the TVA and the Tennessee GOP to the spill, with the former frittering away its credibility over the last week and the latter spinning the disaster away from the environmental effects and clean-coal busting meme dominating the discussion to more GOP-friendly “our economy needs coal” talking points.

Tom Yulsman at the Center for Environmental Journalism’s blog CEJournal has been covering this story pretty thoroughly, and he’s got an excellent post up on the hazards of coal combustion byproducts (CCBs). His other posts are here, here, and here. Tom was also kind enough to let us crosspost his CCB toxicity post. And he’s recently written a piece on how the Scientific American piece talking about fly ash radioactivity has an utterly BS headline. In the interests of disclosure – I’ve used the SciAm piece myself, but did not mention the BS “more radioactive than nuclear waste” line.


As for what was kept contained behind the dike before the spill (and is now spread out over hundreds of acres), the NYTimes and Knoxville News Sentinel report that the TVA released an inventory of the total amount of toxic materials held on site in the Kingston plant’s storage areas. According to the NYTimes, the report has a single year’s worth of toxic inventory:

The inventory, disclosed by the Tennessee Valley Authority on Monday at the request of The New York Times, showed that in just one year, the plant’s byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems.

And the holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a T.V.A. plant 40 miles west of Knoxville, contained many decades’ worth of these deposits.

The Alabama news site is reporting that well water in the area around the site could be contaminated and that, once the powdery ash dries out, it will get blown around a lot. I don’t know about you, but the idea of inhaling even a small fraction of 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, et al doesn’t really appeal to me….

According to the Frontporch blog, members from a couple of environmental groups joined forces to independently sample Emory River water quality. They kayaked up to the spill area between police on both shores yelling at them that the area was closed and took water samples. Results should be available by Friday at the latest.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has a website devoted to the disaster, and at the moment the site redirects to the disaster site as well. There’s links to all the TVA’s press releases and a good amount of basic information on the Kingston plant, storage of fly ash, etc. One of things that I couldn’t find, though, was a link to the news that the TVA’s Inspector General is opening an investigation into the spill.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the TVA may change how it handles fly ash in the future as a result of this spill. No news on how, of course, except that TVA CEO Tom Kilgore told spill-affected residents that the TVA “is reviewing storage options at the plant.”

At least the TVA isn’t raising electricity rates as a result of the spill. Yet. Cleaning up the toxic mess will cost a lot of money (a 2005 Delaware River spill cost $37 million and was one tenth the size) and someone will eventually have to pay, so TVA customers probably get to look forward to a rate hike eventually. There’s nothing quite like paying for the privilege of having your home flooded by hazardous waste – and then paying again to have it cleaned up.

clean-coal-nprApparently environmentalists and journalists are having trouble getting close to the site. Activist Dave Cooper reports over at The Huffington Post that the TVA is preventing activists from touring the site and that they are being added to a “media corral.” Here’s the quote in question:

We tried to drive back to the spill site but TVA officials sent us to a media corral to sit and wait. We tried various tactics to get past TVA security, including offering to give a ride to some local residents walking home carrying heavy bags of groceries – but no luck. TVA made them walk back to their coal-ash-covered homes.

After 20 minutes of waiting, we left the media corral and drove around on back roads to try and access the spill scene. We found a great photo op at a roadside pulloff: a local Kingston resident had tacked a homemade cardboard sign reading “CLEAN COAL?” to a tree.

When we tried to take pictures of the sign, we were quickly accosted by an agitated TVA official wearing agreen vest, who demanded we leave immediately. We drove on to the next checkpoint, where we were detained for almost an hour. The TVA official called TVA police and demanded that we be arrested. Fortunately the local ABC News affiliate (Channel 6) was there to capture the whole scene of our detention, and we were eventually allowed to leave.

TVA personnel appear to be under great strain, which is understandable — but in my opinion they over-reacted. All we were doing was taking photos.

There are valid safety concerns – heavy equipment moving tons of material and regular folks don’t mix safely in the best of conditions – but the TVA would probably do better PR if their people were allowing tours or even permitting self-guided albeit escorted tours of the slide area.

One more thing from Cooper’s excellent post – the TVA’s claim to have this area cleaned up in six weeks is highly unlikely (putting it generously):

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.

To get it all moved in 6 weeks, though, would take between 4 and five dump truckloads of every minute, something that I suspect the power plant end isn’t big enough to handle, even if the slide site is. If anyone has information on how fast they’re actually (the slide is so large that they could have dozens of teams cleaning it up, leading to a much higher dump truck departure rate than every 5 minutes), let me know. (Thanks to Bill Kovarik for the link)

In addition to the aforementioned site, a couple of other activist groups are organized around responding to this spill. I’ve heard tell from a lot of activist associates that United Mountain Defense (they have a news blog as well), a group devoted to “protecting Tennessee’s watersheds, air, mountains, and people,” is working hard in the Kingston and Harriman communities to keep residents informed of their rights, the questions they need to be asking the TVA, and so on. If you’re in need of information, don’t hesitate to contact them.

A couple of environmental groups (but mostly the aforementioned United Mountain Defense) have pooled their resources and come up with TVA Coal is Killing Tennessee, a site with a huge number of images and videos (some of which I’ve used on this page). The flyover images and videos are amazing.

At least one resident of the former Swan Pond has decided to document how her life has changed since the spill on Monday, December 22 – she’s started a Livejournal blog titled “Life on Swan Pond after TVA….”, where she’s chronicling her trials and tribulations with the TVA. In addition to a rundown on a public Q&A that the TVA had with residents that she caught streaming from her PC, she had this to say on the 30th:

I have to remind myself that people that are not close to this tragedy can say things that still “scrape” the open wounds of the disaster here…. like one that said to me “so you live next to the “ash hole”….. Ok. I am NOT amused. (I’m afraid that we will most likely see this as a bumper sticker soon)

Open invitation for them to camp out here at my house for a week…bring your wife, kids and dogs…..
…….Gee, I hope they bring their own water.

Just a reminder to be sensitive to those of us who have the benefit of a safe distance from the sludgeslide. S&R has contacted the blogger and hopes she’ll be willing to grace our site with a guest post at some point in the future.

The original claim made by the TVA was that the spill was about 2.6 million cubic yards, and that number was quickly reduced to 1.7 million cubic yards. But the NYTimes reported on the 26th that the spill is now estimated at 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge. The spill was large enough that it blocked navigation on the Emory River, and as a result the US Army Corps of Engineers will be coming in to dredge the ash out of the River and make it navigable again.

According to two great articles earlier this week, there is a remarkable dearth of oversight over fly ash impoundments like the one that failed. Ken Ward of the the Charleston Gazette reports that Congress and the National Academy of Sciences have tried to get federal regulations imposed, but that at present states are responsible for regulating how fly ash is handled. James Bruggers of the Courier-Journal reports that, in Kentucky at least, the TVA spill has prompted people to call for the General Assembly to more strictly regulate Kentucky’s impoundments, especially the 200+ dams that are considered by state officials to be “high risk.” The problem in Kentucky is worse than in many other states since the state gets more than 90% of its electricity from coal power plants. (Thanks to SEJers Ken and James for these links and their related work)

Another state that has a fly ash problem is Virginia, where Tim Thornton of the Roanoke Times has been reporting on how the state manages fly ash for quite some time. Apparently Virginia doesn’t require lined impoundments for the ash if it’s being used for “beneficial” purposes like fill dirt that will be then turned into valuable riverside real estate. Never mind the toxic nature of the development site.

Both the Knoxville News-Sentinal and the Nashville Tennessean have stories on a $165 million lawsuit that has been filed by real estate owners and developers whose property has been affected by the spill. The suit seeks $15 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages. In addition, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has filed a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to force the TVA to return the area to its original condition. Given that the EPA was, at one point early on, thinking that the area might need to be made a Superfund site, forcing the TVA to return it to a pristine condition could be problematic at best.

According to local news station WBIR, however, Roane County has no plans to sue the TVA.

Given a recent legal settlement, the TVA could lose or be forced to settle any lawsuits that are filed. According to a press release, Constellation Power Generation of Maryland settled today for $54 million worth of expenditures in a case that related to water pollution from fly ash dumped into an old quarry near residences. This settlement was mentioned in the Frontporch blog on December 30 in post that pointed out just how widespread the problem of fly ash really is – a 2007 EPA report claimed that there are 135 sites nationwide with coal ash problems – including Kingston, TN. But the post also pointed out that 135 sites is a woefully small number given the amount of coal ash produced nationally every year – and the number of communities that are suing their power companies, and winning, over fly ash related problems. The writer Jamie dug up a pretty long list….

After the immediate need to get the spill into the national consciousness early last week (an activity that S&R was proud to help with), many environmental groups and bloggers switched into “wider perspective” mode and started using the sludgespill as an example of why coal simply isn’t clean. Richard Graves at the climate blog It’s Getting Hot In Here pointed out that, while the spill was highly visible, it was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Whether by flooding 400 acres of beautiful Tennessee valleys and rivers with six feet of coal ash, or blowing the tops off of literally hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, or changing the global climate itself through massive releases of carbon dioxide – the coal industry has perhaps the greatest impact of any industry in the world – yet we barely know it. Coal plants intake almost 20% of the United States’ freshwater, uses almost half of our freight railroad capacity, and leaves behind scarred landscapes, poor and exploited communities, kills vulnerable people – in fact, the Kingston Coal plant is estimated to cut short the lives of over 149 people a year – and coal is the leading source of global warming pollutants from the United States.

The source of the “cut short the lives of over 149 people a year” is a Greenpeace press release titled Tennesse Coal Plant Kills 140+ per year that, while a bit confrontational, points out that air and water pollution does kill people. While the numbers come from a report released in 2002, Greenpeace claims that the pollution levels from the Kingston plant (where the sludgespill occurred) have not fallen since the original report was published. Something else out of the original report that the Greenpeace press release didn’t mention is the estimated number of days of work missed as a result of the Kingston plant’s pollution: 27,727. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income for Tennessee is $41,632, or about $166.53 per day (at 50 work weeks, 5 work days per week). That’s about $4.62 million dollars of lost productivity from the Kingston plant alone. So much for cheap coal.

And just in case you think that this is only a problem with coal, a post by David Sassoon at climate blog SolveClimate claims that tar sand tailing ponds in Alberta have the potential for similar spills. 400 million gallons of toxic mine tailing sludge every day. Above-ground engineered ponds that cover 23 square miles. The main difference, though, is that there’s really no major population centers downstream between the ponds and Lake Athabasca. Just wildlife and wilderness. “Just.”

Image credits:
Knoxville News Sentinel
New York Times

Slideshow credits:
Nashville Tennessean
Knoxville News-Sentinel
Southwings Air and Creekeeper_2008
Brian Stansberry, via Wikipedia
United Mountain Defense
NASA Earth Observatory

8 replies »

  1. Brian: Your coverage of this is the best, most inclusive, and deepest that i’ve seen on my travels through the internet. Thanks.