Kingston coal ash disaster still reverberates 10 years later

A home in Swan Pond Cove, next to Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Power Plant in Tennessee, is surrounded by coal ash in this December 2008 photo. (© Jerry Greer)

Ten years ago, workers were several weeks into what would be the beginning of a multi-year cleanup of the largest toxic coal ash spill in U.S. history. These cleanup crews were tasked with removing an almost unimaginable 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge that was up to six-feet deep in some areas and covering 300 acres.

When a dike holding back millions of gallons of coal ash sludge failed at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant early on the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, homes were buried or pushed off their foundations and hundreds of properties were inundated by the thick coal ash slop.

Coal ash is the toxic byproduct left after coal is burned at power plants and the spill released large amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury and other contaminants into the area’s natural resources, including the Clinch and Emory Rivers, which are tributaries to the Tennessee River.

For too long, TVA has ignored, downplayed, and denied the dangers of its coal ash management choices. It’s time for TVA to take responsibility—and real action—and to clean up its mess.”

—SELC Attorney Anne Passino

Miraculously, no one was killed during the disaster itself. However, 10 years later, it has become clear that this was still a very deadly incident.

More than 30 of the workers involved in cleaning up the spill have died while hundreds more are sick. In November, a federal jury found the contractor hired by TVA to assist with the cleanup had endangered workers by ignoring safety rules and misleading them about the dangers of exposure to toxic coal ash.

“Kingston was a horrific disaster whose effects are still being felt,” said SELC Senior Attorney Amanda Garcia. “Unfortunately, there’s little to indicate that TVA learned anything from this disaster, especially about the dangers of irresponsibly storing the massive amounts of coal ash generated by its coal-fired plants.”

Those dangers are not limited to a repeat of the levee failure at Kingston that caused such a massive spill — though the potential for another catastrophe remains an ongoing concern at TVA’s coal ash ponds scattered around the valley and other utilities’ coal ash ponds across the Southeast region.

Even without a major spill, coal ash pits — which are almost all unlined — present ongoing risks to the public and the environment. Nearly every major river in the Southeast has at least one unlined, leaking coal ash pit on its banks filled with wet coal ash from a power plant. That proximity to toxic waste endangers rivers and lakes, contaminating water people paddle, swim, and boat in, as well as the fish they catch and eat. Coal ash ponds across the country also threaten the drinking water sources of millions of Americans, as the many toxins in coal ash leach out of the unlined, leaking pits into nearby rivers, lakes, and groundwater.

Just recently, TVA was forced to abandon irresponsible plans at its new Allen Combined Cycle Plant to pump water out of the Memphis Sand Aquifer — a huge underground reservoir of pure water stretching across several states — after a study found a hydrological connection between that aquifer, which supplies drinking water for the City of Memphis and beyond, and a smaller aquifer above it that has been contaminated by a nearby coal ash pond owned by TVA.

TVA’s Gallatin Fossil Plant is a prime example of the utility’s dangerously lax approach to coal ash storage. In a 2017 trial, SELC attorneys submitted internal documents revealing decades of coal ash discharges from the plant’s coal ash ponds — including leaks in the 1970s that released 27 billion gallons of sludge into the Cumberland River.

There’s little to indicate that TVA learned anything from this disaster.”

—Senior Attorney Amanda Garcia

As these revelations came to light, officials at various levels began looking to better understand coal ash impacts. In August 2015, the Commissioner of Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) issued an administrative order requiring TVA to investigate the extent of its coal ash contamination at seven active and retired coal plant sites, with the ultimate goal of ending the pollution. Combined with the 2015 federal Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule, the TDEC order requires TVA to keep the state up to date on its actions to comply with the federal rule, and also applies to a broader range of coal ash disposal sites than the federal rule alone, potentially providing much-needed additional oversight for Tennesseans.

In 2018, TDEC and TVA released for public comment their proposed investigation plans in order to “fully identify the extent of soil, surface water, and ground water contamination by coal ash.” With citizen input, the results of these investigations will guide TDEC’s requirements for the utility to clean up coal ash pollution in communities across the state. Although, in many cases, sufficient historical information already exists to understand that TVA’s coal ash pits are unlined and leaking pollution, yet these investigations at seven active and retired coal power plants will continue through 2019 and beyond.

“TVA has got to start treating its coal ash problem with the urgency it demands,” said SELC Attorney Anne Passino. “For too long, TVA has ignored, downplayed, and denied the dangers of its coal ash management choices. It’s time for TVA to take responsibility—and real action—and to clean up its mess.”

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