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December 23, 2008

The TVA Coal Ash Impoundment Spill - Another Risk of Coal

This is a blog post from Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign.

Today there is sad news out of Roane County, Tenn.: A retention pond at the Kingston coal-fired steam plant burst, sending more than 524 million gallons of coal fly ash and water into the nearby town of Harriman and Watts Bar Lake. One man was injured when his home was swept off its foundation, and the mudslide also affected 15 other homes.

Reports are that the rush of mud, ash and water now covers 400 acres and is several feet deep in some areas – this coal ash spill is also many times more massive than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The cleanup is expected to last weeks, but some lives have already been altered forever - and the full environmental impact is not yet known. Fly ash is known to contain numerous toxic chemicals and it’s being reported that some of the spill made it into the Tennessee River – a water supply source for the city of Chattanooga as well as people in Kentucky and Alabama.

And now we have to wonder if the Tennessee Valley Authority is being fully open about what’s in that fly ash water – bloggers are already taking notice, including in these two Knoxville Sentinel posts here and here. The second post links to this an excellent article about the risks.

While coal company CEOs flog the supposed wonders of “clean” coal – they cannot get around the latest coal industry disaster: massive coal sludge spills. To see more of the destruction, just look at the aerial video of the spill. How many more reminders do we need that burning coal for power is filthy and dangerous? And will those doing the cleanup and those living nearby in the aftermath be properly protected in this possibly toxic environment?

The coal industry’s poor design and maintenance of its sludge ponds has a long and sordid history: In 1972, a giant impoundment collapsed in Logan County, West Virginia, causing a landslide that killed 125 people, injured 1,000 others, and left 4,000 people homeless.

In 2000, a sludge impoundment failed in Inez, Kentucky, spilling more than 300 million gallons of coal-contaminated waste into local waterways.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this was among the largest environmental disasters ever to occur East of the Mississippi.

There are literally hundreds of these sludge impoundments across the United States.  As coal has dominated Appalachia, it has left behind a toxic legacy for residents, a legacy that will haunt the region for decades. For example, in Sundial, West Virginia, an elementary school sits just 400 yards downhill from a massive impoundment containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge.

Next time you hear some PR spin about an imaginary fuel called “clean” coal” ask them about the hundreds of thousands of Americans who struggle to breathe because of air pollution from coal burning, or the latest Americans whose homes have been destroyed or flooded by coal sludge.  

P.S.- There is no air pollution or devastating flooding associated with solar and wind power.

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