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This item was posted on December 23, 2008, and it was categorized as Energy, Environmental contamination, Environmental journalism, Uncategorized, blogging, fossil fuels.
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Environmental catastrophe could be worst in southeastern U.S. history

TVA Coal Ash Spill Dec 22 2008

This stunning video portrays the horrifying extent of the coal ash spill in Tennessee that’s now being
ignored by mainstream media.The giant black rafts of debris in the river are chunks of coal ash.


Update 12/24/08:

Finally, some 36 hours after the catastrophe, the New York Times has posted a story on its Web site under the headline “Water Supplies Tested After Tennessee Spill.”  In the era of the continuous, 24/7 news cycle, news organizations like the Times and CNN couldn’t even manage to keep to the pre-Internet  daily cycle, when news broke one day and wound up in the paper the next. With this story, they’ve gone back to the era when it took several days to deliver the news — because it was delivered on horseback. 

First Updates:

  • James Bruggers’ blog on the catastrophe at the Louisville Courier-Journal, with videos. According to Bruggers, a coal slurry spill in the year 2000 in Martin County, Ky, amounted to 300 million gallons — significantly less that yesterday’s disaster. Until now, it was regarded as the worst environmental disaster in southeastern United States history. “Much of the national media paid little attention, though, because, it seems, it was located in Appalachia,” Bruggers writes. It seems that the same thing may be happening again.  
  • Clueless at CNN: As of 3:45 p.m., Mountain Time, on Tuesday — the day after the catastrophe — the cable news network was featuring a story on its home page about drivers being rescued from an SUV caught in a flood from a water main break. A little below it was a hot, hot, hot environmental story about, well, “Eco-asphalt.” But absolutely nothing about what may be the worst environmental catastrophe in southeastern U.S. history. But they did manage to squeeze in an article about “shirtless Obama snapped on beach.” You really can’t make this up. If you want this to change, write to CNN and complain. Ask them why they are incapable of covering breaking environmental news. Ask them why they laid off all of their environmental reporters and producers.
  • “Ash Christmas”: Grist’s take on the catastrophe, with information about radioactivity and coal ash.
  • Twitter feed here with excellent links from Amy Gahran. 
Protecting the public, our employees, and the environment is TVA’s primary concern as we supply electric power for the people of Tennessee Valley region. We deeply regret that a retention wall for ash containment at our Kingston Fossil Plant failed, resulting in an ash slide and damage to nearby homes. We are grateful no injuries have been reported, and we will take all appropriate actions to assist those affected by this situation.

Not surprising that they focus on the fact that no one has died, and ignore the potential impact to water supplies, and the poisoning of hundreds of acres of land with mercury and arsenic — a swath of territory that may well have to be declared an EPA Superfund site.


Editor’s note: This is a guest blog by Wendy Redal, a former CEJ staffer and now a freelance writer. Redal has written extensively about the impact of mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Go here for some of that work. If you haven’t heard about the events she describes below, you’re probably not alone. I found no mention of the catastrophe on the Web sites of the New York Times, CNN or Fox News, and a Google News search only turned up stories by local Tennessee media. I’m not surprised that CNN has missed the story, since they laid off all of their science and environmental reporters and producers, leaving them utterly incapable of adequately covering an incident like this. But why the New York Times has been silent is quite a mystery. 
– Tom Yulsman

By Wendy Redal


Days after I published the final piece in a series on the environmental destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining at Scholars & Rogues, another coal-related catastrophe has struck Appalachia.

Early Monday morning, a major disaster occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal-burning power plant near Harriman, Tenn., along Interstate 40 between Knoxville and Nashville.  The earthen dike around a giant retaining pond of coal ash, the toxic waste material left over after the coal is burned, gave way, releasing half a billion gallons of debris laden with mercury, lead and arsenic into tributaries of the Tennessee River.  The spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant has compromised the water supply for millions of people living downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.  Four hundred acres of land were submerged in wet ash and mud, in some places up to six feet deep.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the spill released 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry, enough to fill almost 800 average-size Olympic swimming pools. 

The TVA spill, nearly 50 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, has forced the evacuation of 15 homes.  One was ripped from its foundations by the cascade of poison waste, and a man who narrowly escaped the collapse of his home is currently hospitalized. .The spill has killed multitudes of fish that are washing up on the shores of several rivers, whose waters are opaque with oily gray ash.

For local footage of the disaster’s impact in Roane County, go to Knoxville-based WBIR:  http://www.wbir.com/video/default.aspx?aid=74330. 

And for further detailed coverage, read the article in today’s Tennessean, which is reporting that the disaster could take years to clean up and may become a Superfund site, according to EPA sources:


In 2000, a coal sludge impoundment was breached in Martin County, Kentucky, releasing 300 million gallons of waste, yet this story never received widespread national coverage despite the enormity of the environmental and public health crisis it created.  The coal industry and local officials marshaled all their political resources to keep news of the spill contained.  The country cannot afford for that to happen again. 

Though this event was not part of a mountaintop removal coal mining operation, it is yet more evidence that “clean coal” is a gross misnomer and public deception.  It should be enough to cement that awareness, and spur citizens to take every measure possible to hasten a shift to safe and renewable energy sources.



Latest video on the aftermath of the disaster, from Knoxnews.com.
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This thing has 15 Comments

  1. Mike Saunders
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    This really saddens me. Somewhere about the second or third word, this crossed the line from responsible journalism into purely sensational advocacy work.

    Please get some science in here and explain the toxicity levels in a specified amount of fly ash, and not use inflammatory language like “cascade of poison waste” or “environmental catastrophe.”

    Comparing this to the Exxon Valdez by using volume of material spilled is problematic at best, especially since one was in water and the other on frozen land. And those “multitudes” of dead fish on the river banks didn’t die from the heavy metals in the ash, they likely asphyxiated from the sudden oxygen loss — which would happen if there was a natural event like a mudslide.

    Please note that I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t live in Appalachia. I’m not some coal industry apologist, and I strongly believe the responsible parties should have their feet held to a nice, hot anthracite fire until the entire spill area is restored.

    Please stick to the facts, because if they’re on your side, your case is considerably stronger.

  2. Posted December 23, 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Comparing the Tennessee disaster to a natural mudslide seems a bit more of a stretch than comparing it to the Exxon-Valdez disaster. The latter comparison is perfectly valid, since both were completely preventable human-caused disasters, and the fly ash spill is likely to have very serious and long-lasting environmental consequences, just as the oil spill in Alaska did.

    While we don’t yet know for sure what was in the sludge released in this catastrophe — and that is exactly what it was, a catastrophe (tell the people who lost their homes that it is not) — it is well know that fly ash is contaminated with heavy metals and poses serious risks when not handled properly. Obviously, this sludge was not handled properly. (Specific, primary sources on the risks of fly ash to come in a subsequent post tomorrow.)

  3. Mike Saunders
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Tom, you make a very valid point about this certainly being a catastrophe for the folks whose homes are now buried under tons of wet fly ash. But scale is truly an issue here. When does an accident become a disaster of seemingly epic proportions 50 times larger than Exxon Valdez?

    No doubt that this will have long-lasting and serious environmental consequences for that region…but none of the stories or blog posts linked here are anywhere close to definitively explaining how bad this actually is. In some ways, the folks quoted in the Tennessean and Knoxville Journal pieces are showing some restraint.

    And yes, from what I’ve read fly ash is “contaminated with heavy metals”…but, of course, there are traces of the very same elements in most backyard soil. Without the actual levels present (or at least results of previous findings) those are empty trigger words that can be pounced upon.

    Tell readers that a specific amount of fly ash contains X ppm of a certain carcinogen, and that level is two, three or 50 times the drinking water standard, then you’ve told them something tangible and resonant. It’s a tricky knife edge: accurately portraying the scale of an environmental calamity while avoiding over-the-top language that recalls alar and apples.

    The comment about why this story isn’t in the New York Times is a valid one, but I’d bet a beer or three that the Times is currently working on one of its typically exhaustive pieces that tend to answer some of the aforementioned questions.

  4. Posted December 23, 2008 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    This isn’t the first time that fly ash sludge has spewed out en masse into the environment, and experience from past events suggests that this one is going to be one of the worst in history. Eight years ago, a sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy burst open, flooding an underground mine with some 300 million gallons of waste and contaminating the drinking water of some 25,000 residents. (Try telling those residents that it wasn’t a catastrophe.) It took months to clean it all up. And this spill is much bigger. So I see no reason to be sanguine about it. And it certainly deserves more coverage than a water main break in Bethesda.

    This event and mountaintop-removal mining with all of its environmental fallout, give the lie to the “clean” coal propaganda campaign pushed by industry to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. It is a lie that has echoes in Orwell’s 1984 — “war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength.” He might have added “coal is clean.” As Goebbels once said, repeat a lie often enough and people will begin to believe it — until, perhaps, an event like this happens to remind us that coal is actually not terribly clean after all.

    So you’ll have to excuse me if I seem over-zealous here. At a time when national media are absolutely asleep at the wheel — out of provincialism, stupidity, laziness or corruption I can’t say — bloggers are stepping in to help get the story out. If in the end the event turns out to be not as catastrophic as it seems now, I’ll be the first to admit it. But I do not think that’s going to happen.

    Tomorrow I will try to post details on the toxicity of fly ash. As I understand it, the stuff is quite nasty. In addition to heavy metals, it also carries radioactivity. You’re right that we don’t know how bad things are now. But look at the video. If you don’t conclude that this is a horrendous event, then I can’t imagine what would seem horrendous to you.

  5. Mike Saunders
    Posted December 24, 2008 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Page A17 of today’s New York Times:


  6. Posted December 24, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    TVA is now saying that the whole impoundment was 2.6 million cubic yards and that “about two thirds” of it broke away – so lets say 1.8 million cubic yards times 200 gallons per cubic yard (and I have been advised that one is a solid measure and the other is a liquid measure and you can convert them this way) – anyways 1.8 times 200 is 360 million gallons. So if Exxon Valdez was 11 million gallons thi spill is about 30 times greater. Anyway you slice and dice it, this is a huge disaster. Too bad the networks arent covering it – just like they didnt cover the Martin County coal slurry spill in KY in Oct 2000 – which was 306 million gallons

  7. Posted December 27, 2008 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks, a very informative site here, i will definately be back.


  8. Posted December 27, 2008 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    The reason that CNN and other national sites don’t give a crap about this story should be obvious by this point. These media conglomerates are all part of a very small group of corporate powermongers who are profiting from fossil fuels and war spending. So of course they’re not going to trumpet a major environmental disaster like this – they know there’s probably more coming, they want to keep people ignorant instead of filing lawsuits.

    CNN’s dismantling of their environmental team almost seems like just another step toward the apocalypse, enabled by the Bush regime’s dismantling of the EPA. Obama can prove his mettle or not by turning the EPA around with priority A#1.

    The way the pathetic national media has ignored this story along with the obvious assassination of Mike Connell is just another sign of how this whole system is a teetering house of cards…

  9. Posted February 10, 2009 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    There is so amazing for us! Thank you!

  10. Posted February 10, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Real idea, grazie!

  11. Posted April 6, 2009 at 11:56 pm | Permalink


  12. Posted April 13, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    5 февраля компанией «Полисет-СБ» будет представлена комплексная система безопасности под названием «Экспресс». Данная демонстрация пройдет в Москве в Выставочном комплексе «Крокус Сити», ведь именно здесь в это время и будет проводиться выставка «Технологии безопасности», тематике которой «Экспресс» полностью соответствует.

  13. Posted April 15, 2009 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    Теперь я скажу несколько слов о подводке к дичи молодой собаки и о ее стойке.(В работе собаки по дичи следует различать 4 момента (подразделения) ее работы:

    1 — поиск, длящийся до того момента, как собака начнет причуивать признаки присутствия дичи в доступном для ее чутья расстоянии;

    2 — потяжку — работа собаки, разбирающейся в донесшемся до нее запахе до момента окончательного определения ею наличия дичи; эта работа заканчивается

  14. Posted April 19, 2009 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Nice, no advice.

  15. Posted April 20, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    wow, nice …

This thing has 9 Trackbacks

  1. Posted December 23, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    [...] A post by Wendy Redal on this same subject, over at the Center for Environmental Journalism’s blog. [...]

  2. Posted December 24, 2008 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    [...] for one thing, it released 50 times more toxic sludge than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster, and you’ve heard of that, [...]

  3. Posted December 24, 2008 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    [...] Tennessee Valley Authority: Is This What “Clean Coal” Looks Like? Jump to Comments Body blow to the public image of Clean Coal production.  Expect anti-coal groups to seize on this right about…now. [...]

  4. Posted December 26, 2008 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    [...] CE Journal with many links to reasonable reports. [...]

  5. Posted December 27, 2008 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    [...] before Christmas: Coal sludge spill 50X worse than Exxon Valdez cejournal.net By Wendy Redal The resulting flood unleashed approximately 132 million gallons (500,000,000 L) of [...]

  6. Posted January 2, 2009 at 5:56 am | Permalink


    not bad……

  7. Posted January 3, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink



  8. Posted January 17, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    [...] Nightmare before Christmas: Coal sludge spill 50X worse than Exxon Valdez [...]

  9. Posted January 23, 2009 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    [...] US law firm Weitz & Luxenberg the most horrific Tennessee environmental disaster of the release of a dam storing a coal fly ash from coal plants into the Tennessee River with a toxic spill 50x bigger than the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 off the coast of [...]

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