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Tennessee coal ash disaster

On Monday, December 22 around 1:00 a.m., residences near the Kingston coal plant near Harriman, East Tennessee, were flooded with over a billion gallons of nasty black coal waste. The toxic coal sludge covered 400 acres of land up to 6 feet and flooded into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

This is a massive environmental disaster that didn’t get much coverage in the US let alone anywhere else – thanks to Keith for alerting us. America is now well aware of what has happened, thanks to good old cyber-activism, and the internet is buzzing with feedback and updates, including an interview with one of the campaigners working on this disaster, a sizable entry on Wikipedia and lots of other reports and footage.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the federal corporation that operates the Kingston Coal Plant, has reported that the water is safe and the area is not toxic but you can see coal sludge in the water and dead fish on the banks. Residents say that they are not surprised by the flood because TVA has been fixing leaks in the retention wall for years and one person said this wall had been leaking for months before it broke.

The amount spilled is unprecedented in size and scale, being more than 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, and should become the stunning example of exactly how dirty coal really is. The following day, Greenpeace asked for a criminal investigation into the incident, focusing on whether the operators could have prevented the spill. On December 30, a group of landowners filed a lawsuit against the operators for $165 million in Tennessee state court and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy announced its intention to sue the operators under the federal Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

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 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.

Despite the scale of the disaster, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) recently applied grass seed and fertiliser to nearly 21 acres of land affected by the spill. One imagines this must be genetically modified grass seed if it is to thrive in an environment now rich in heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead. The TVA also suggested that anyone concerned about the water should boil it – coz we all know that boiling water removes heavy metals!

Here in Scotland, fly ash from burning coal is usually landfilled, rather than piled up USA-style. Some is even recycled into construction materials but this disaster is yet another reminder that coal is not clean and its use has to end.


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