1 Dec 2010

2 years later, TN coal ash debacle still a long way from real cleanup

Written by Jim Pierobon

Three days before Christmas in 2008, approximately 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge near a federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tennessee overwhelmed an 84-acre containment facility flooding a wide swath of the bucolic countryside.  Two years later, it is very difficult for objective observers to envision how TVA will “make good” on the debacle as CEO Tom Kilgore was quick to pledge.

This home once enjoyed a bucolic vista, until coal ash sludge engulfed it and the surrounding countryside Dec. 22, 2008. Image via Wikipedia and Creative Commons

“On Dec. 22, our lives changed forever,” area resident Sarah McCoin said at a recent hearing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as reported by the Roane County News.  “Basically the periodic table was dumped into our rivers.”

Not only does the incident — the worst industrial accident in the U.S. ever — haunt McCoin and other residents of the Swan Pond community in Roane County, the clean-up efforts themselves are creating concerns that TVA’s current attempts at managing the fly ash dust and seepage of sludge into area ground water sources actually are making matters worse.

Coal ash contains toxic materials such as lead, arsenic, selenium and thallium, and such sites have been known to contaminate drinking and surface water. The cost to “clean up” after the accident is rising at a pace that could exceed $1 billion in the years to come.

Anti-coal activists argue Federal ash regulations should be strengthened. Image courtesy of CleanEnergy Footprints.The incident compelled the EPA to publish a list similar coal ash disposal sites around the country. The coal industry opposed it for fear of drawing local protests and heightened oversight by regulatory authorities.

The list identifies 49 high hazard potential disposal sites in 10 states, including 12 in North Carolina, 9 in Arizona, 7 in Kentucky and 6 in Ohio. Curiously, there were no Tennessee Valley Authority sites on the list — including the Kingston facility — despite the fact that TVA still burns a significant amount of coal there and elsewhere in Tennessee to generate electricity. The list did contain this footnote: “Five units at four TVA plant sites are rated High (hazard potential)”.

When TVA completed the Kingston plant in 1955, it was seen as a blessing. If one could look past the smokestacks, the surrounding area — notably Swan Pond, on a peninsula ringed by the Emory River, superficially was an outdoor paradise. But today, just moving around and out of the area poses risks to safety and human health, especially as the ash and sludge are shipped via rail to containment facility in Alabama. “It’s Russian roulette leaving my neighborhood everyday,” said. Don Simon, another area resident, told the Roane County News.

TVA is asserting progress of the clean-up effort but it recently refused to participate in a high-profile EPA hearing in Tennessee about coal ash disposal.  The resulting lack of face-to-face engagement, and credible transparency, leaves area residents to ponder how much of the real story is in the public domain. Residents around the 49 high-risk sites can only wonder if a similar fate awaits their communities, and perhaps their livelihoods.

Below the sharpened radar about the spill is the decision the EPA needs to make soon over whether this type of coal ash and/or sludge should be classified as “hazardous” waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). There were credible arguments for and against it — before the Kingston disaster. How the EPA and perhaps the courts deal with the message the disaster sends will be very closely watched, to say the least. Find a credible discussion of this here by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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