In an e-mailed statement, RiverLink calls it a “huge and terrible environmental disaster,” one that could be 40 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. But this disaster happened in neighboring Tennessee along the Interstate 40 corridor west of Knoxville.
At 1 a.m. on Dec. 22, some 500 million gallons of coal sludge flooded 15 homes in a 400-acre area west of Knoxville. Unleashed by a break in a waste-pond retaining wall at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired plant, the wave of mud, water and coal ash knocked at least one home off its foundation and left a muck as deep as 6 feet. “Viewed from above, the scene looked like the aftermath of a tsunami, with swirls of dirtied water stretching for hundreds of acres on the land, and muddied water in the Emory River, said a report from a Gannett news source in the region. (Click here.)
The ashy sludge contains such toxins as mercury, arsenic and lead—all of which could seep into the ground and flow downriver. It was being stored in an unlined 40-acre retaining pond at the Kingston plant. Cleanup may take weeks or even years at the site, which may qualify for superfund status, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard, state, local and other officials were on hand to assess the damage on Monday.
Recent rains and frigid temperatures may be to blame for the pond collapse, says TVA president and CEO Tom Kilgore. He also remarked that — despite the chemicals known to be present in the sludge — there’s no immediate danger.
But a flood of environmental groups and bloggers begged to differ, citing the many health risks associated with coal ash, such as irritated skin and cancer. “Coal power is dirty — plain and simple,” said Chandra Taylor, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. In her press release, she stated, “Nobody wants to find coal in their Christmas stocking, let alone coming through their home and polluting their river.”
A drinking-water intake for Kingston City lies just a few miles downstream from the spill, which was big enough to fill almost 800 Olympic-size swimming pools. And the Emory River is a tributary for the Tennessee River. In an effort to slow downstream contamination, TVA officials have been managing river flows and have brought in heavy machinery to clean up the spill zone.
Nearby residents reported that smaller spills haven’t been uncommon at the site.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, supplies most of the electricity in the state. The smokestacks of the Kingston (or Harriman) plant can be from Interstate 40 between Knoxville and Nashville. Completed in 1955, the plant supplies electricity for almost 700,000 homes.
“The United States Environmental Protection Agency should immediately establish national safeguards for the disposal of coal wastes and enforceable regulations,” said Taylor.
—Margaret Williams, contributing editor
Dec. 25 notes: Xpress attempted to get closer to the spill site today, but access was restricted. Although the plant can be seen from I-40 near exit 352, the spill occurred on its north side—out of view. The Nashville newspaper The Tennessean reported evidence of fish kills (click here). The nearby towns of Kingston and Harriman are small, with quaint downtowns and historic buildings. A sign near the plant access read “Emergency Scene ahead” and another provided displaced residents with a phone number..