Thursday, December 26, 2013

Since the dam broke…

On the morning of December 22, 2008, a rumbling began along the Emory River in East Tennessee. Moments later, walls of water and ash washed around the streets, bridges, and houses of the surrounding community. A disaster few had considered possible was underway.

This image shows the end result of the Kingston coal ash spill. The smokestacks in the distance are coal-fired power plant. When coal is burnt for electricity, there is always something left over, material known as fly ash. These leftover products of coal burning contain a variety of contaminants including heavy metals and chemicals that can irritate respiratory systems.

At this plant, ash was being dumped into a retaining pond and used to build a dam. 5 years ago today, that dam gave way, and 5.4 million cubic yards of material dumped into the Emory river.

Today, the cleanup of the area is well underway, but the disaster has created a number of longstanding environmental and legal problems.

The Tennessee Valley Authority which operates the plant has spent over a billion dollars on cleanup. They paid to remove the houses of the people who lived in the affected areas, spent tens of millions of dollars building new parks and bridges for the cities that lost land, and dredged a majority of the ash out of the river.

About 10% of the ash volume is going to remain in the Emory River. Rivers are really good at dispersing sediment, so once the dam collapsed recovering every bit was never going to be possible. Some of that sediment has washed downstream while some has been trapped in isolated areas of the river. A variety of monitoring efforts are underway from the TVA and local universities to track these contaminants as they migrate towards the Gulf of Mexico.

The plant itself continues operating and construction of new holding facilities is underway.

This disaster created a variety of national and legal issues that have still not been resolved. Prior to this spill, the Environmental Protection Agency generally ignored coal fly ash and power plants dealt with it on their own. This disaster showed that setup was simply inadequate and the director of the EPA promised to issue rules by the end of 2009 for ash storage, but the EPA has yet to issue those rules. Ash like this is stored in hundreds of facilities nationwide, and at those facilities, groundwater contamination and smaller spills are commonplace.

There are also lawsuits directly relating to the Kingston ash. That ash was taken by train for disposal at a landfill in Alabama, and the local community (with a mostly African American population) has filed a civil rights lawsuit asking why the material was too dangerous to store in Tennessee but safe enough to store in their communities.

The Kingston fossil plant ash spill left a substantial mark on the surrounding ecosystems, and the ramifications continue to be felt to this day.

Image credit: Knoxville News Sentinel

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