An environmental disaster of epic proportions just happened in Tennessee. Monday night 2.6 million cubic yards (the equivalent of 525.2 million gallons, 48 times more than the Exxon Valdez spill by volume) of coal ash sludge broke through a dike of a 40-acre holding pond at TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant covering 400 acres up to six feet deep, damaging 12 homes and wrecking a train.
According to the EPA the cleanup will take at least several weeks, but could take years. Officials also said that the magnitude of this spill is such that the entire area could be declared a federal superfund site.
Toxic Sludge Got Into Tributary of Chattanooga Water Supply
Apart from the immediate physical damage, the issue is what toxic substances are in that sludge: Mercury, arsenic, lead, beryllium, cadmium. Though officials said the amounts of these poisons in the sludge could not be determined on Monday, they could (at the mild end) irritate skin or trigger allergies or (longer term) cause cancer or neurological problems.
This toxic sludge got into the Emory River, a tributary of the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers: The water supply for Chattanooga, Tennessee as well as millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. TVA says that as yet the spill (which they are characterizing as a mudslide or landslide, but frankly it's still toxic...) has not affected the water quality in the Emory River.
High Levels of Rain, Thaw Freeze Cycles May Have Weakened Pond Walls
On why the spill happened, the Tennessean speculated,
The area received almost 5 inches of rain this month, compared with the usual 2.8 inches. Freeze and thaw cycles may have undermined the sides of the pond. The last formal report on the condition of the 40-acre pond — an unlined, earthen structure — was issued in January and was unavailable Monday, officials said.
Greenpeace Calls for Criminal Investigation
In a press release issued yesterday, noting that spills of similar substances have resulted in felony charges, Greenpeace called for a criminal investigation into the spill:
"Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster," said Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable."
TVA Releases Official Statement
In an official statement, TVA president and CEO Tom Kilgore said,
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.
We appreciate the continuing efforts of local and state agencies, as well as TVA employees, to respond to this situation quickly and efficiently. Our intense effort to respond effectively will continue 24/7 for the foreseeable future with the safety of the public our top priority.
Clean Coal, Yeah Right
As many people in the blog world are noting, it's this sort of thing that really makes the proposition of clean coal so absurd. Even if you can scrub all the CO2 out of it, you still have so many other toxic waste products associated with burning coal that have to be stored that carbon emissions are just a part of the problem. How many other holding ponds are out there waiting to burst?
More: The Tennessean, It’s Getting Hot In Here, Greenpeace, Scholars and Rogues
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