USA swines pollute for private profit
A vehicle leaves the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant where a retention pond wall collapsed, Monday, Dec. 22, 2008 in Harriman, Tenn. The Tennessee Valley Authority says the 40-acre pond held a slurry of ash generated by the coal-burning Kingston Steam Plant.
(AP Photo/Wade Payne)
(AP Photo/Wade Payne)
(AP Photo/Wade Payne)
(AP Photo/Wade Payne)
The TVA and Environmental Protection Agency initially estimated that the spill released 1.7 million cubic yards (1.3 million cubic metres) of sludge, then on December 25, 2008 more than tripled that estimate to 5.4 million cubic yards (4 million m³) following an aerial survey. The spill covered surrounding land with up to six feet (2 m) of sludge. The EPA estimated that it will take four to six weeks to clean up; however, Chandra Taylor, the staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, stated that the cleanup could take months and possibly years.
The 40-acre (16 ha) unlined aboveground pond was used to contain a watery slurry of fly ash generated by the burning of finely ground coal at the steam power plant. The fly ash, which is the consistency of face powder, comprises the fine particulate pollutants produced by the combustion of coal, which are collected rather than allowing them to escape into the atmosphere, then mixed with water so they can be pumped into the retaining pond. Once the particulate matter settles out, it is moved to other, drier ponds. The pond was surrounded by 60-foot (20 m) tall earthen walls, which had developed leaks on two occasions since 2002. Although the land surrounding the power plant is largely rural rather than residential, the spill caused a "tidal wave" of water and ash that covered 12 homes, pushing one entirely off its foundation and rendering three uninhabitable. It also washed out Swan Pond Road, ruptured a major gas line, and temporarily disrupted power lines, though power was restored quickly. Though 22 residences were evacuated, nobody was reported to be injured or in need of hospitalization. It was the largest coal slurry spill in United States history, approximately 1.5 times the size of the Martin County sludge spill of 2000, which spilled 306 million US gallons (1.2 million m³) of liquid coal waste. The sludge was enough to fill 1,660 Olympic-size swimming pools, and the amount released was approximately 50 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. On December 23, 2008, a TVA spokesman, Gil Francis Jr., stated that, at the time of the spill, the area contained approximately 2.6 million cubic yards (2.2 million m³) of ash, and that two-thirds of that had been released. The New York Times noted that the amount spilled is larger than the amount stated to have been in the pond before the spill, a discrepancy the TVA was unable to explain. The containment area affected was one of three; the other two stayed intact, while only the retaining wall for the 40-acre (16 ha) pond was affected.
The spill killed a huge number of fish. Although residents feared water contamination, early tests showed that the public water supply met drinking water standards. A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, and "barely detectable" levels of mercury and arsenic.
Rain totaling 4.9 inches (124 mm) over the course of the month of December and 14 °F (−10 °C) temperatures were stated as having contributed to the cause of the spill. A report dated from October 2008 had found a "minor leak" present in the faulty wall, though the report was not finalized. Local residents said that the spill was not a unique occurrence; the 1960s-era pond had been observed leaking slurry to a lesser degree, and being repaired, nearly every year since 2001. A TVA release confirmed that there had been two prior cases of seepage, in 2003 and 2006.
|"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." |
—Tennessee Valley Authority statement
TVA spokesman Gil Francis Jr. said that the TVA was "taking steps to stabilize runoff from this incident." In response to a video that showed dead fish on the Clinch River, which had received runoff from the spill, he stated "in terms of toxicity, until an analysis comes in, you can't call it toxic." He continued by saying that "it does have some heavy metals within it, but it's not toxic or anything." Chandra Taylor, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called this statement irresponsible, claiming that coal was naturally toxic and therefore the fly ash waste product contained concentrated amounts of mercury, arsenic and benzene. She added, "These things are naturally occurring, but they concentrate in the burning process and the residual is more toxic than it starts." Nevertheless, due to pressure exerted in 2000 by utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials, fly ash is not strictly regulated as a toxic pollutant by the EPA. Residents and environmental groups expressed concern that the fly ash slurry could become more dangerous once it dries out, but have as yet received no information about this from the TVA.
Meanwhile, the EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation awaited the results of soil and water testing to judge their response, while the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency promised to put up barriers to stop the ash from reaching the Tennessee River. By early on December 24, 2008, a flyover by The New York Times showed no evidence of any barriers having been erected, although they did note repair work being done on the nearby railroad, which had been halted by the spill when 78,000 cubic yards of sludge covered tracks. By the afternoon of that day, dump trucks were being used to deposit rock into the Clinch River to prevent the further downstream contamination. The TVA has also slowed river flow, for the same purpose.
Lisa Evans, an attorney for Massachusetts-based environmental group Earthjustice, spoke out against the government, accusing them of lax regulations on the issue. She also blamed the industry for ineffective safeguards, citing other similar cases. She stated that "The saddest thing is this is entirely avoidable. These people in these communities don't have to be in harm's way. This is not some complicated problem like nuclear waste. This is something the utilities know how to do." Thomas J. FitzGerald, the director of the environmental group Kentucky Resources Council and an expert on coal waste, told The New York Times that the ash should have been buried in lined landfills to prevent toxins leaching into the soil and groundwater (as recommended in a 2006 EPA report), and stated that "I find it difficult to comprehend that the State of Tennessee would have approved that as a permanent disposal site." Concern has also been expressed by environmental groups and local residents that no warnings were issued to residents living in the area about the potential dangers of the site. The site may be slated as a Superfund site, although no decision regarding this has yet been made. The environmental group Greenpeace asked for a criminal investigation into the incident, focusing on whether the TVA could have prevented the spill.
TVA president Tom Kilgore said that, in light of the spill, the Authority would consider switching the Kingston plant over to "dry" byproduct methods, which would reduce the chances of another spill. Five TVA-operated plants use this method, while Kingston and another five use a "wet" process. The power plant continues to operate, with waste being sent to one of the two remaining intact containment ponds.