First Hand Account of Coal Ash Disaster in Tennessee

by on December 30, 2008 · 3 comments

in Economy, Energy, Environment

by Dave Cooper / Huffington Post / Dec. 28, 2008

This is a monumental and unprecedented environmental catastrophe. The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) disaster is now estimated at 5.3 million cubic yards of coal ash, or almost twice as large as the 2.8 million cubic yards generated by the World Trade Center collapse.

( See comprehensive aerial video of the spill here)

This spill is affecting two tributaries of the Tennessee River. The Tennessee is a major river system and a drinking water source for millions of people downstream in Chattanooga, plus Alabama, west Tennessee and Kentucky. Coal ash is the waste material captured after the coal is burned for electricity – burning coal generates about half of America’s electricity and according to Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Jeff Goodell, there is three times as much coal ash as municipal solid waste generated in America every year. ( “Big Coal,” Jeff Goodell page 123). About 130 million tons of coal ash and power plant scrubber sludge are generated annually.

Coal ash contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead. An article in Scientific American magazine dated Dec 13, 2007 states that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste.

In response to an urgent request from environmental activists, I brought water testing equipment to members of United Mountain Defense working at the spill site. UMD has set up an emergency crisis management center in Kingston, TN to coordinate the citizen response to the disaster and handle the media onslaught. On Saturday Dec 27, a flotilla of citizen water testers in kayaks, including members of UMD and Waterkeeper Alliance, toured the spill site, navigating among huge chunks of coal ash, which they refer to as “ashbergs.” “We named the highest peak Mt. Ash,” said Matt Landon, UMD volunteer staff person.

TVA – which refers to the disaster as an “ash slide” on their website – is telling the public not to worry, the water is safe, the coal ash is inert. The TVA website says “The public may call (865) 717-4006” – but no one answers that phone and it will not accept messages because the mailbox is full (Monday morning 9:27 AM EST).

The Knoxville News Sentinel (Monday, Dec 29) states “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that “very high” levels of arsenic were found in a water sample collected from the affected area and that several heavy metals have also been found in quantities “slightly above drinking water standards.” (ref: )

Officials with TVA and EPA have already lost some credibility with the local residents.

On Dec 23, the day after the spill, the Tennessean first reported that the size of the spill was 2.6 million cubic yards. The following day TVA said that the entire intact mountain of coal ash mountain was actually 2.6 million cubic yards, and that about two-thirds (or roughly 1.8 million cubic yards) had broken through the earthen embankment. Now TVA is saying that 5.3 million cubic yards of their coal ash mountain collapsed into the water. There are 200 gallons in a cubic yard, so that equates to about 1.06 billion gallons — almost 100 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons in 1989.

We tried to drive back to the spill site but TVA officials sent us to a media corral to sit and wait. We tried various tactics to get past TVA security, including offering to give a ride to some local residents walking home carrying heavy bags of groceries – but no luck. TVA made them walk back to their coal-ash-covered homes.

After 20 minutes of waiting, we left the media corral and drove around on back roads to try and access the spill scene. We found a great photo op at a roadside pulloff: a local Kingston resident had tacked a homemade cardboard sign reading “CLEAN COAL?” to a tree.

When we tried to take pictures of the sign, we were quickly accosted by an agitated TVA official wearing agreen vest, who demanded we leave immediately. We drove on to the next checkpoint, where we were detained for almost an hour. The TVA official called TVA police and demanded that we be arrested. Fortunately the local ABC News affiliate (Channel 6) was there to capture the whole scene of our detention, and we were eventually allowed to leave.

TVA personnel appear to be under great strain, which is understandable — but in my opinion they over-reacted. All we were doing was taking photos.

I worked on the Martin County Kentucky coal slurry spill in 2000, when the accident-prone coal company Massey Energy dumped 300 million gallons of thick black coal slurry into two streams, Coldwater Creek and Wolf Creek in eastern Kentucky.

In that case, the local Martin County officials kept the media out by blockading the public roads for “public safety.” The story was effectively squelched and most people in America never heard how bad it was. I helped to publicize that disaster, but it occurred before the age of bloggers, independent media, and videos on line. Thanks to an army of cyber-activists, America is now well aware of what has happened at the TVA plant in Kingston.

It’s hard to comprehend the enormous size of this spill. TVA’s coal ash mountain was stacked over 50 feet high — as high as a 5 story building.

If a dump truck can hold 20 cubic yards of dirt and ash, it will take 265,000 truck loads to haul away all the ash (they are taking it back to the power plant). If they fill one dump truck trip every 5 minutes and work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it will take about 2.5 years to clean up the spill. TVA has been telling the media it will be cleaned up in about 6 weeks – this is a ludicrous claim.

There is an emergency meeting of the Kingston City Council on Sunday at 4:30, open to the public. The City of Kingston will begin the process of formulating its official reaction and response to the massive TVA fly ash spill. Everyone who wishes to speak or comment will have the opportunity to speak at the public meeting.

The Kingston Community Center is located at 201 Patton Ferry Rd, Kingston, TN? —
phone (865) 376-9476?.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

tmj99 October 9, 2009 at 5:54 am

Families for a Clean Tennessee Video Hits the Streets!

Families for a Clean Tennessee released a video reinforcing a poll conducted by Insider Advantage. The poll uncovered that more than 80% of voters oppose dumping nuclear waste in ordinary commercial landfills.

The poll also uncovered the following:

* 90% believe nuclear waste should be disposed of in long-term isolation facilities.
* More than 75% of likely voters-both Democrats and Republicans– are more likely to support a candidate for Governor that is opposed to nuclear dumping and the BSFR program.
* Nearly 60% are more likely to support a legislative candidate that is opposed to nuclear dumping and the BSFR program.
* More than 50% have stated they would actively work for the election of any candidate from either party that opposes the dumping of nuclear waste in Tennessee landfills.
* More than 50% support Senate Bill 687, and more than 60% are more likely to vote for candidates that support Senate Bill 687.
* 63.5% believe that under no circumstance should nuclear waste be dumped in Tennessee.

A copy of the poll has been sent to every legislator in Tennessee along with a pledge asking them to support ending the practice of Bulk Survey for Release.



tmj99 October 12, 2009 at 10:22 am

Families for a Clean Tennessee are very concerned about this latest development: DOE wants to ship low-level radioactive waste to an Anderson County landfill from a closed plutonium extraction plant in New York. See the news article at: Equivalent to 200 dump truck loads of waste! We must act now. To support this effort call Senator Tim Burchette at 615-741-1766 now! Tell him you are opposed to accepting New York’s nuclear waste in our backyard! Visit our website for more ways you can help combat this activity at


Jon Allie March 9, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Coal Ash can actually be used fuel for a Plasma Arc Power Plant. It should be mandated by state legislatures to build Portable Plasma Arc Power Plants to use up and eliminate this Coal Ash Waste. Also, Georgia Tech and CERL are the American Pioneers in this Technology – POC: Dr. Ed Smith Commercial 217-373-3488 or 800-usa-cerl – Georgia Tech POC: DR. Louie J. Circeo Comm 404-894-2070 or Construction Research Center (CRC), Georgia Institute of Tech, Atlanta, GA 30332-0159. This is proven technology which has been used by Japan since the 1990s with the contrustion of over 20 plants.


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: