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January 09, 2009

Coal Waste Spills by the Dozen?

This blog is co-written by Bruce Nilles and Mary Anne Hitt, director and deputy director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign

Shocking news out of Alabama today – TVA has confirmed another coal waste spill, this one at its Widows Creek coal-fired plant in northeast Alabama. TVA officials say that the release came from a gypsum treatment operation. They also told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that the spill occurred at around 6:00am this morning, and that some of the toxic waste has reached nearby Widows Creek.

This is the second coal ash spill at a TVA facility in less than a month, following the tragic spill at the Kingston plant in Tennessee that contaminated water in the Emory and Clinch Rivers and more than 300 acres of nearby land, including dozens of homesites. We hope the residents near Widows Creek have fared better and we offer our sympathy to those who have been affected.

While full details on the Widows Creek spill aren’t yet available, this new spill raises a simple, obvious question – what is going on here?

One explanation is that this is just an unfortunate coincidence, perhaps brought on by the weather. But a much more likely explanation is that smaller coal ash spills and releases – like the ones we’re learning about in Alabama and now East Tennessee – are all too frequent, and the magnitude of the TVA disaster in Tennessee finally shined a light on a quiet tragedy that has been going on for decades.

In fact, there are at least 23 states where groundwater or surface water has been poisoned by coal ash. In 2007 alone there were 24 cases of water pollution linked to ash ponds in 13 states and another 43 cases where coal ash was the likely cause of pollution. Smaller spills often take place, but get little attention outside the immediately affected area. The Kingston disaster has brought long-overdue attention to what many communities have been suffering for decades. And according to a recent study by the Environmental Integrity Project, there are over 100 sites similar to the TVA site in Kingston that pose a danger to communities across the nation.

This second spill in less than a month further underscores the need for the Environmental Protection Agency to quickly take serious steps to regulate coal ash before more communities are put at risk. (By the industry’s own estimates tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals still remain in ponds across the country.) It also highlights the need for us to begin moving beyond coal to cleaner energy sources that keep our lights on without doing this kind of damage to our communities.

This is why we are urging President-elect Obama to start with a Clean Slate in 2009 that will put the nation on a clean energy path and finally address the most serious impacts of coal. We need your help to deliver that message.

Please contact President-elect Obama today; click here to get started.

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