Wednesday, December 24, 2008

TVA dike break - Tennessee's Exxon Valdez

An environmental rape of a beautiful part of Tennessee after an economic rape of electric customers in a record earnings year by the largest public utility in the country.

Samuel M. Simpkins/The Tennessean
Perry James' home is flooded with ash and mud in Harriman Tenn., where a 40-foot retention pond broke early Monday morning. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry flowed out of the pond.

Tennessee Valley Authority
An aerial photo from the scene near Harriman, Tenn.
more photos from The Tennessean

Aerial Footage

Flood of sludge breaks TVA dike

HARRIMAN, Tenn. — Millions of yards of ashy sludge broke through a dike at TVA's Kingston coal-fired plant Monday, covering hundreds of acres, knocking one home off its foundation and putting environmentalists on edge about toxic chemicals that may be seeping into the ground and flowing downriver.

One neighboring family said the disaster was no surprise because they have watched the 1960s-era ash pond's mini-blowouts off and on for years.

About 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry — enough to fill 798 Olympic-size swimming pools — rolled out of the pond Monday, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Cleanup will take at least several weeks, or, in a worst-case scenario, years.

The ash slide, which began just before 1 a.m., covered as many as 400 acres as deep as 6 feet. The wave of ash and mud toppled power lines, covered Swan Pond Road and ruptured a gas line. It damaged 12 homes, and one person had to be rescued, though no one was seriously hurt.

Much remains to be determined, including why this happened, said Tom Kilgore, president and CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"I fully suspect that the amount of rain we've had in the last eight to 10 days, plus the freezing weather … might have had something to do with this," he said in a news conference Monday on the site.

The area received almost 5 inches of rain this month, compared with the usual 2.8 inches. Freeze and thaw cycles may have undermined the sides of the pond. The last formal report on the condition of the 40-acre pond — an unlined, earthen structure — was issued in January and was unavailable Monday, officials said.

Neighbors Don and Jil Smith, who have lived near the pond for eight years, said that nearly every year TVA has cleaned up what they termed "baby blowouts."

Ashen liquid similar to that seen on a much larger scale in Monday's disaster came from the dike, they said.

"It would start gushing this gray ooze," said Don Smith, whose home escaped harm. "They'd work on it for weeks and weeks.

"They can say this is a one-time thing, but I don't think people are going to believe them."

The U.S. Coast Guard, EPA, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation were among agencies that responded to the emergency.

Toxic irritants possible

Coal is burned to produce electricity at the Kingston Fossil Plant, notable for its tall towers seen along Interstate 40 near the Harriman exit in Roane County.

Water is added to the ash, which is the consistency of face powder, for pumping it to the pond. The ash is settled out in that pond before the sludge is moved to other, drier ponds, Kilgore said.

Coal ash can carry toxic substances that include mercury, arsenic and lead, according to a federal study. The amount of poisons in TVA's ashy wastes that could irritate skin, trigger allergies and even cause cancer or neurological problems could not be determined Monday, officials said.

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.

The Emory leads to the Clinch, which flows into the Tennessee.

Workers sampled river water Monday, with results expected back today, but didn't sample the dunelike drifts of muddy ash.

That could begin today, officials said, and the potential magnitude of the problem could make this a federally declared Superfund site. That would mean close monitoring and a deep, costly cleanup requiring years of work.

"We'll be sampling for metals in the ground to see what kind of impact that had," said Laura Niles, a spokeswoman for the EPA in Atlanta.

"Hopefully, it won't be as bad as creating a Superfund site, but it depends on what is found."

Stephen Smith, with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Knoxville, said those concerned about water and air quality have tried for years to press for tighter regulation of the ash.

The heavy metals in coal — including mercury and other toxic substances — concentrate in the ash when burned, he said.

"You know where that is now," he said. "It's in that stuff that's all over those people's houses now."

Chemicals and metals from coal ash have contaminated drinking water in several states, made people and animals sick in New Mexico, and tainted fish in Texas and elsewhere, according to Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit national environmental law firm that follows the issue.

"It's discouraging because this is an easy problem to fix," she said.

Ash could be recycled by using it to make concrete and at the very least should be placed in lined, state-of-the-art landfills, she said.

Plant is still operating

TVA's Kilgore said that chemicals in the ash are of concern, but that the situation is probably safe. The power plant is still operating, sending the ash to a larger pond on the site.

"There are levels of chemicals in there that we are concerned about," Kilgore said. "We don't think there's anything immediate of danger because most of that's contained, but that's why we have sampling folks out."

Officials were monitoring a water intake that serves Kingston City and is only a few miles downstream from the Kingston plant, but said no problem had been noted there as of Monday afternoon.

The power producer, which oversees the Tennessee River system, had slowed river flow in the area, releasing less water from key dams, so the pollution might be better contained for possible cleanup.

TVA has insurance for an event like this, spokeswoman Barbara Martucci said, but what the cleanup cost is and how much insurance will pay remains to be determined.

Otherwise, ratepayers in Tennessee could bear much of the costs. TVA provides virtually all the electricity in the state, along with parts of six others.

Officials test TVA sludge

HARRIMAN, Tenn. — Neighbors overlooking hundreds of acres of potentially toxic sludge from TVA's ruptured coal ash pond are waiting for everything — to trust the water, to clean up the muck, to simply restart their lives.

Scores of onlookers and residents crept up to the edge of the 250- to 400-acre spill Tuesday, curious but worried about risks while officials continued sludge and water testing.

"It doesn't look healthy to me," said local fisherman Jody Miles, examining a thin layer clouding the top of his favorite fishing spot on the Clinch River.

"Do you reckon they can bring all this life back that's going to die from all this mess?"

In the wee hours of Monday, 1.82 million cubic yards of wet ash spilled out of a Tennessee Valley Authority retention pond next to its Kingston coal-fired power plant — lower than officials' original estimates but still enough to fill 558 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The spill sent sludge into the Emory River, which flows into the Clinch; damaged 12 houses in the Swan Pond community; and littered yards with dead fish. No one was seriously injured, but three houses are probably beyond repair, officials said.

TVA and other teams continued water sampling in the Emory River and the Clinch, as well as the Tennessee a little farther downstream Tuesday. Monday's testing showed water treated through normal means would be safe to drink, and concentrations of toxic metals were below state limits to protect fish.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staff member and an EPA contractor arrived to test the ash plastering the land for toxic metals and mercury, a neurotoxin that concentrates in coal ash.

"We're going to have people work through Christmas," TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said. "This is a 24-7 operation."

Swan Pond resident Chris Copeland and his family said they had not heard any message from TVA as of Tuesday evening about health concerns or disease, although Kilgore said the agency had advised residents along a replaced water line to boil their water before using it.

"It would be nice to find out something," said Deanna Copeland, Chris' wife.

Nearby, half of a hot tub was flung next to a broken tree, while a TV/VCR combination sat perfectly unscathed just yards from the wall of a damaged house.

"My wife and I were in bed asleep, and it woke me up out of a dead sleep, the sound of the crashing and limbs breaking — just a real incredible noise," said Chris Copeland. "I woke up and looked out the window, and I could see waves of water going through the cove."

The Copelands' boat dock was washed away, but they were lucky compared with neighbor Perry James. His house was almost completely destroyed, covered with mud up to the second floor as the sludge rushed into an inlet.

The sewage-like stench from the water worries Copeland, who is concerned for his wife and two daughters.

Kilgore said that weekly meetings after the holidays would keep residents informed.

He downplayed any concerns about the ash on land.

"I don't think they have a problem being in their houses," Kilgore said. "I wouldn't pick any up or wade in it."

The ash was not expected to dry out and present an airborne risk because of rain expected tomorrow and Saturday night, Kilgore said. A barrier of rocks has been placed in the river to try to contain any more ash that flows into the waterway when it rains.

Cleanup time unknown

Although many of TVA's 11 TVA fossil plants use dredge pools to settle out ash from a watery slurry, the Kingston plant is the only one with pools raised high above the ground, said TVA manager Missy Hedgecoth.

That's due to a lack of space in what has become a residential area, unlike around TVA's other coal-burning power plants in the state. The agency had its choice of moving the plant or building the ash pool higher, Hedgecoth said.

Kilgore said the agency would explore ways of separating ash, including a dry system used at five of the agency's sites.

He did not give estimates as to how much cleanup of the spill would cost, but the agency said initial cleanup could take weeks. Residents doubted that timeline, saying they expected the first signs of recovery to take months to complete.

That time could stretch much further if testing of the ash on the ground proves to have high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic materials that coal ash is known to contain.

Clearing inlet is priority

An inlet near Swan Pond Circle Road had almost completely filled with ash by Tuesday morning, shoving boats downstream and pushing fish into residents' yards.

Clearing that inlet will be the first water project for TVA engineers, Kilgore said, along with clearing the road of mud and debris.

Monday's pond failure followed two incidents in 2003 and 2006, in which TVA officials had to repair small "blowouts" in the dike. Each resulted in spills of similarly gray, ash-laden water.

In those instances, Kilgore said, TVA reinforced the dike and had no further problems. Initial investigations indicated Monday's failure came from a different section of the dike.

Kiril Galloway, a newlywed, had just bought a house near the lake, and had hoped to continue enjoying the water where he had grown up fishing and swimming.

He looked out, describing what he used to see when he would come out to the area that now offers nothing more than large chunks of dirt, of the pond wall that failed his community.

"You'd see a lake out there, an island with several trees — nothing like it does now," Galloway said. "It's amazing all the damage that has been done here."

User Image
RenderingPlant wrote:
Please Tennessean, report correct facts! The Inlet you speak of is the EMORY RIVER. The Emory River is a beautiful river that is over 600 square miles of drainage area at the point of the sludge filling. From your aerial photos, one can see about half of the channel is filled with sludge. The Emory has good flow and current at this point and is actively moving the ash downstream to the Clinch R and the Tennessee River. As we speak, the material has moved into Watts Bar lake.

The Emory River receives a good bit of its flow from the Obed River watershed. To put things in perspective the Obed River watershed starts at Crossville and neighbors the Caney Fork watershed that flows to the Cumberland River.

TVA, USED, NOV, TDEC, EPA, DHS are a few acronyms you should look at with respect to major players in this spill. I estimate several years of clean up. main question is, where is the material going to be landfilled?????


Ash Christmas

TVA coal disaster is toxic wake-up call

According to numerous studies, coal ash contains mercury, lead, and arsenic. And nearly 800 Olympic-size swimming pools of that toxic mix is flowing into the waterways of Tennessee now. As the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Tuesday:

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.

The Emory leads to the Clinch, which flows into the Tennessee. Workers sampled river water Monday, with results expected back today, but didn't sample the dunelike drifts of muddy ash."

For the millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kentucky, a spill estimated to be several times bigger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska is creeping into their waterways and aquifers.

But here's the nightmare coda: Coal ash is more toxic and radioactive than nuclear waste. According to recent studies:

... the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, fly ash -- a by-product from burning coal for power -- contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste.

According to some surveys, people living near coal-ash dumps have 900 times the national cancer rates.

Let's hope not only that the TVA, EPA, and appropriate government agencies deal with this spill in a swift and wise manner, but also that the new Obama administration recognizes the dangers of dirty coal and accelerates its clean energy program. source


Dead shad line banks of Clinch near ashslide site

TVAd ash spill: Crews mount round-the-clock-cleanup

TVA looks to similar case for costs of removing fly ash

Residents: Area 'changed forever' by TVA breach

Ash spill: Two prior breaches at retention site

Mudslide from TVA pond breach closes Emory River

Ash leak fuels debate on risks of coal waste

The view from Perry James' front porch, which sustained significant ...
Photo by J. Miles Cary
photo byWade Payne

Some updates: 12-25-08

TVA Spill Destroys Habitat

Ash storage facility 'higher than any other'

TVA in total denial

Coal sludge spill 50X worse than Exxon Valdez

YouTube channel from Knoxville News Sentinel

Official TVA statement

CBS News Video

A steady stream of men and materials is rumbling down ...

Photo by J. Miles Cary

A steady stream of men and materials is rumbling down Swan Pond Road to the holding pond that failed and dumped a large quantity of fly ash and water over about 400 acres in Roane County.

Updates: 12-26-08

TVA Triples Spill Estimate

Environmentalists Concerned On Effects Of Huge TVA Coal Ash Spill

How Fly Ash is Produced - NY Times

"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." Washington Post

Also see:
Mountain Removal - Coal for Electricity


  1. God love all those good people.

    Where was Sen. Bob Corker (R) Tennessee when the toxic flood was covering his State?

    If he had not been so busy Union Busting and destroying middle class workers... maybe he could have saved this!

    This is awful.. SHAME ON CORKER!!!! and all his Republican buddies that let this happen.

  2. Merry Christmas from your friends at TVA. We made a list and checked it not once but twice, we decided to be naughty not nice. Now for your News Years gift we give you the Tennesee rate payers the bill for cleaning up this toxic trash and you will also have to pay for a new plant that reduces the output of waste ash.

    Somebody at TVA is going to get a big bonus for coming up with the way to resolve the problems with the pond and get the rate payers to pay for it.

  3. This is so sick.

    This toxic crap is going to flow down to Ft. Payne Alabama, and Georgia and pollute drinking water for hundreds of miles.

    What about people's livestock and their crops and fresh water wells?

    I am so mad... I have to get off the computer before I say something towards Sen. Corker I might regret.

  4. More legacy of the capitalist system of profits. Lenin said it clearly: "Capitalism is horror without end.", and this toxic waste is horror without end indeed !! I just hope people wake up from their delirim and realize that capitalism is a dictatorship of the elite, what we need is the opposite thesis: A workers-state, not the current corporate-state.

  5. what kind of humans would operate a slurry with such disrespect for the lives of those around them

  6. To come to think of it
    G W Bush just signed into law the
    rights for Coal companies to allow this stuff to pour into the Rivers and now blam its here
    I suspect this is intentional.
    It seems kind of odd that this would happen days after Bush signed that law

  7. safe to be in their houses but "wouldn't pick any up or wade in it"? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE??? that stuff is worse than nuclear waste, and they want those poor people to stay in their houses?

    all i can say is leave it to TVA. i am in western kentucky, and what they did to the people before building kentucky lake and lake barkley was one of the worst atrocities of our government's history.

  8. what a mess ! what devestation, may God help them ! may others also help. it looks like the breach was on a bend which is why more pressure was there to break.

  9. I feel so sad for my neighboring residents. As we all sit in our warm cozy homes we need to pray for these people and to thank God for our Blessings. God Bless all of you and I will do all I can to help with the needs of these residents.UN

  10. Hey corker!!! put a cork in it! You filthy pompous slob! Look at what you get for becoming a giant middle class busting prick. God is going to get you because you are a rotten to the core SOB.

  11. I have lived out on Swan Pond Circle all my life. My home is not directly affected but is definitely indirectly affected. Everytime I leave to get out of the neighborhood, I cry at the mess. This area "was" one of the most tranquil areas of the county. Not anymore! Now we have to put up with people that are not respecting our community. It is like a circus with cars constantly coming up and down the road to see what is apparent. (Even today...Christmas when they should be with family and friends.)TVA finally posted security at the roads leading into the community to check people who are trying to come into the community that don't need to be here.

    What is next? We need to be informed of TVA's plans. The 20% increase that we just got assessed on our utility bills (due to the increase of gas prices that have since gone down but not the utility increase) should help TVA come up with a plan for our community's resolution to this incident.

  12. Thanks for a good collection of information, photos and videos.

    I've been blogging about DIRTY COAL and MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL it seems like forever, but never thought the horror of this size disaster would come.

    With media attention finally focused on the issue and a new President, maybe we can get a more effective cleanup and prevention regulations in place.

    Clean energy sources are available, such as Cape Wind, a proposed wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod. Unfortunately, Dirty Energy and wealthy property owners who don't want their view obstructed have generously funded opposition.

    God Bless You All!

  13. lol funny bunch of people here.

    Corker is a senator not a governor. He shouldn't be in the area. Even if he was home he would be in Chattanooga not Knoxville.

    I'd rather he was bashing the pathetic unions anyway. Our car industry is bust because we are paying line workers 100k.

    The plant is 50 years old and the sludge is anything but toxic. The tests on the drinking water and air have barely shown anything worth mentioning, which is why its not even on the news anymore.

    Wow look another loser blaming Bush for something. Whatever! If you want to blame someone try FDR, he created TVA idiot.

    Get over yourselves. It will be cleaned up in short order. Bunch of freaks.