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unEARTHED. The Earthjustice Blog

One Year Later, a Coal Ash Disaster Still Remains

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21 December 2009, 1:31 PM
Dec. 22 will be a day residents in Harriman will never forget

I remember my first thought when I read the papers on Dec. 23, the day after one of the biggest environmental disasters in our nation's history: "This is only the beginning."

The stories about the spill came out like the spill itself: slow at first, then in a huge, sudden avalanche of sad details. 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Power Plant burst through a dam near Harriman and spread over 300 acres of pristine shoreline along the Emory and Clinch Rivers.

The spill damaged 23 homes and completely destroyed three.  This was enough coal ash to fill up nearly four Empire State Buildings; this much coal ash would flow over Niagara Falls for 24 minutes straight. Luckily, no one was physcially injured, but the emotional toll was immense.

Just 19 days later, 10,000 gallons were released from a pond at TVA's Widows Creek Power Plant in northeastern Alabama. A month after the Tennessee spill, Congress got involved with hearings and rhetoric about how we needed to clean up this mess and make sure it never happens again. But then on March 9, 2009, another spill occurred.

This time, a pipeline from a paper mill in Maryland broke, releasing 4,000 gallons of coal ash into the North Branch Potomac River and onto West Virginia's shoreline. These two spills were small by comparison, but both indicated a much more sinister trend: coal ash is a threat to communities all over the country that needs to be addressed. EPA told us this summer that 49 other coal ash ponds are "high hazard," meaning a dam failure will probably cause a loss of human life. That's 49 other potential TVA sites, just waiting to burst. How many Empire State Buildings could be filled with that coal ash? Let's hope we don't have to find out.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson promised her agency was going to introduce the first-ever national regulations on coal ash ponds by the end of this year. The anniversary approached, and we waited. But last week, EPA announced they weren't going to make the end-of-year deadline. They said it was because of the complexity of the issue. While this is certainly true, there is likely more to this delay.

For the last 50 years, the power industry has simply dumped its coal ash into unprotected ponds and unlined landfills. They haven't had to follow federal regulations that protect public health because there haven't been any.

Rather than face the truth and do something about this threat, power companies instead are choosing to send their armies of lobbyists to EPA and the White House, spreading untruths and fear and pressuring EPA to not regulate coal ash. And while their lobbyists put the pressure on EPA and other officials trying to do the right thing, residents in Tennessee, Maryland, Alabama and anywhere near the other 584 coal ash sites pray the dam doesn't break.

They pray the coal ash stays where it is for just a little bit longer. They pray they don't become another disaster we remember once a year.



Very informative and trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading omegle sohbet

Very informative and trustworthy blog. Please keep updating with great posts like this one. I have booked marked your site and am about to email it to a few friends of mine that I know would enjoy reading
omegle sohbet

There real question is... how many executives at the companies responsible for these disasters have been PERSONALLY fined until they are broke, or even better, put in JAIL? Not nearly enough I would wager!!

I guess that there is not a good idea to write the research essay by own efforts! I think, that will be better to buy the persuasive term paper at the custom writing service, because that will save time.

Great investigative reporting. It is frustrating that our government is allowing this to happen but not surprising as TVA is the government.

I'll post and forward this wherever I can, Hurricane. This is a travesty.

It was one year ago today that I saw a blurb on TV showing a scene where “A pond dam broke. Some minor flooding occurred.” When I saw the picture it hit me instantly that this was NOT water that flooded out of that pond, it was coal waste. I contacted a local group there in Kingston “United Mountain Defense” and got the real story from their blog site.

On Dec. 22, 2008 a disaster of historic proportions took place in
Kingston Tennessee when a pond containing over a Million cubic yards of
coal ash burst into the Emory River. I took up a collection to buy drinking water since he ash had covered many wells in the area making the water there undrinkable. With a whole truckload of water I headed out to Harriman Tennessee, just outside Kingston. On arrival I was told that the scenario had changed for the worst.

TVA recognized the size and scope of the disaster early and wanted the story to quietly go away. TVA officials were assuring people that there was nothing to worry about, it was just ash and posed no threat. The next day, fellow WATERKEEPER Donna Lisenby and Sandra Diaz from Appalachian Voices showed up with testing equipment and lab containers.

We decided to enter the Emory to take samples of both the ash and water from the river. Sandra and I left in a canoe with Donna in a kayak and headed up to the disaster site. We took samples along the way for later testing. We got to the spill and were all amazed at the proportions of waste in the river. I coined the phrase “Ash-bergs” with the first sighting of the mounds of gray of waste piled high in the riverbed. The ash-bergs were higher than the houses that surrounded the embayment in places. That was our fist glimpse of the actual dam failure. Massive is the only word that describes it and that falls short of the totality and magnitude of this disaster.

The samples we took that day were analyzed and found to contain some 300 times the allowable limits of Arsenic. We were not scientists or even qualified as lab technicians but we knew how to take samples. Samples that later raised many red flags as to TVA’s possible cover-up of just how toxic the spill was.

TVA sent a rent-a-cop, officer John B. Neal, badge # 107, out in a boat to escort us out of the river. We left with a warning citation for “Criminal Trespass” in a waterway of the United States of America but not until after we had collected all the samples we needed to bust TVA.

When the plan to dredge the ash out of the Emory was published there was instant outcry that it was an insane plan that would spread the stuff throughout the Tennessee River basin north of Watts Bar Dam. That is exactly what is ongoing there even today.

I first flew over the site with a SouthWings pilot on Dec. 29, 2008 and saw a river totally changed. Instead of a quiet vacation spot with happy people all around, I saw an embayment full of toxic gray ash that had completely filled the river to it’s banks in places and where it overtopped the river banks, houses were piled up like match boxes. The ash was all over the river for miles downstream.

The second time I flew with SouthWings was on Jan. 09, 2009. It was right after a rain and the ash had spread out like wet gray pancake batter filling even more of the river than before. I photographed a snag boat that was pulling whole trees out of the muck. A plume of ash trailed from behind the boat and was flowing into the power plant and straight out the other side into the Clinch River. Our predictions were being fulfilled right before our eyes and still no one seemed to care.

That ash is now being shipped by the train load to Uniontown in Perry County, Alabama, an Environmental Justice Community. It is then mixed with household garbage in an open landfill. The ash coming in from Kingston is being dredged up from the river bottom, placed in rail cars, and sealed in plastic garbage type bags called “burrito bags” which hold any water still in the ash until it is broken open and loaded into trucks to be hauled 1.5 miles through the landfill to cells located at the intersection of Perry County 1 and Perry County 21, only a few hundred feet from residential homes.

The ash is being layered in with the garbage and left in the weather to soak up any rain that might fall as well as the leachate created by the garbage. The water that remains in the ash is the same water we tested in Kingston and found to be full of heavy metals including Arsenic. The ash water, garbage liquids, and rain are creating an enormous amount of toxic leachate that is trapped in the landfill until removed by the leachate collection system. Due to the unprecedented amount of water produced at the landfill the system has been overtaxed and cannot handle the amount of this mixture being produced.

The leachate created by this toxic mix was then trucked to nearby Marion Alabama. Here it was dumped into an open sewer lagoon and mixed there with municipal sewage in the lagoon within a few hundred feet of residents homes there. The smell emanating from it wafted throughout the community making people sick. Even inside when the wind was right the smell was overpowering inside as well. A resident there is a C.O.P.D. patient who is on Oxygen. Her illness was not caused by the lagoon but was not an issue either until the leachate started coming in by the tank truckload. On Thanksgiving Day there were 21 such stinking loads dumped while residents were trying to have family Thanksgiving dinner.

My good friend and attorney, David Ludder was contacted by a resident at the lagoon and asked if he could help. David asked me to investigate. What I found and reported back helped him decide to take dramatic action. Mr. Ludder filed multiple Clean Water Act notices of intent to sue.

I took samples of the water in the lagoon on two occasions. The first came back with an Ammonia reading of 0.71 mg/l. That is extreme for an open lagoon. The smell was absolutely the worst thing I have ever experienced. I am told that the levels inside a sewer pipe should only be at or around 20 to 30. Later I came back and took a sample of the leachate just dumped by a Suttles truck. The Ammonia came back at 565 mg/l. It became apparent that the Marion Lagoon was failing in a huge way. I sampled the point of discharge from the treatment facility. The results were staggering! The EPA threshold for Arsenic in water is 0.005 mg/l. The sample taken from the POD came back at 0.067. That is after full treatment at the wastewater facility run by Marion. None of the treatment facilities in the area set up or approved to treat for heavy metals. The Arsenic dumped into the lagoon is flowing straight through into Rice Creek, a tributary of the Cahaba River. Even as much as 1.5 miles downstream we found Arsenic to exceed the EPA safe levels.

I have made three trips to the lagoon now and taken others with me for documentation purposes. Every person who went with me has complained of getting sick from it. Headaches, nausea, dizzy feeling, and even vomiting were the common complaints.
Within a couple weeks of Mr. Ludders action the trucks stopped coming into Marion.

End of story? Nope!

With the shipments of ash still coming in and no place to take the leachate what would happen next surprised even me. I went to the landfill to investigate a photo I had taken earlier on July 13, 2008. It looked like a pond with hoses in it and a culvert leading from it directly into the Perry County 1 roadside ditch. The photo shows a quantity of ash collected in one corner and the road was wet all around the pond. When I arrived at the possible location in November, I was instantly struck with the sight of a white ditch with reddish water, similar to mine waste, standing in the ditch. A sample taken there later showed Arsenic at 0.007 mg/l which exceeds EPA standards.

Interviews with residents ( ) disclosed many items of suspicion for me. One lady stated that the smell was worse at night. She later stated that the smell was much worse at night “when they are pumping their water out”. Many residents also told of seeing the ditches run white with landfill waste and the smell that came with it.

Once again, I contacted David Ludder and explained to him the severity of the situation. Once again, David took swift and decisive action in the way of citizen complaints and notices of intent to sue if the situation is not resolved.

Based on the lady’s comment about nighttime pumping, I wet to the landfill on Dec. 15 after dark and just after a rain. The smell was overpowering, the ditch was full of white slimy substance that was coming from the landfill. I followed the flow up to where it came out of the landfill and took samples. (No info available on results yet) I then followed the flow further until I found what I was looking for. A high volume pump was set up to pump out leachate that had accumulated in the haul road ditch during the day. The pump was still warm to the touch and the hoses were weighed down to direct the outflow to the roadside after flowing through the landfill muck a distance of several hundred feet. I will never forget that stench.

All of this is occurring within less than 200 feet of residential properties where people live. Residents are more like prisoners in their homes due to the smells and fear for their health. One man told me of his daughter’s horse getting caught in the ditch where it flows through his yard. The horse was extracted with no injuries but three days later the horse died. This is the same ditch where I got Arsenic hit for 0.007 from standing water.

All of this comes to one thing. Alabama is getting the disaster ash from Kingston at a price. Is the $1.05 per ton tipping fee enough to recover the potential damages done to the community or do Perry Co. officials even care? Alabama Dep. Of Environmental Management (ADEM) gets $1.05 tipping fee per ton as well. It is well known that ADEM is struggling with money issues. ADEM has more than once given this landfill a clean bill of health stating that there was total compliance. Could it be that under the past ADEM director, Trey Glenn that known issues were ignored in order to receive the treasured $1.05 per ton? That is my belief.

I firmly believe that TVA, ADEM, EPA, and the Perry County Commission have teamed up to present a willful campaign of misinformation designed to facilitate the placement of this toxic mess in an environmental justice community where they thought the people were either too dumb or too poor to protest very loudly. What they have done is to spread the disaster ash, just like the cancer it carries with it throughout he Southeast.

Eight river systems have now come in contact with the disaster ash. The Emory, Clinch, Tennessee Rivers flow to the Mississippi. The disaster ash is being railroaded into the community in Perry County literally. The landfill lies in the Chilatchee and Tayloe Creek watersheds and flow to the Alabama River. Leachate from the landfill was being shipped to Marion Al. where it was discharged into the Cahaba River basin. Now it is being trucked to Demopolis where it goes to the Tombigbee River that flows into the Mobile River. That comes to 8 rivers with two separate entries to the Gulf of Mexico. It is spreading through our rivers like cancer flows through the blood steam.

It is time for America to wake up. Whether it is leachate, ash, or mining, it is all a symptom of coal use and lack of adequate controls over it’s use and the waste produced.

Until Kingston, coal ash was almost unheard of. Now there are great measures being taken there to hold the impact to a minimum. Any truck that enters and leaves the disaster site must be washed before departing the plant. The ash that is not being currently loaded is covered and kept from blowing dust around. The train cars must be cleaned and ash placed in protective bags to keep leakage and dust issues down. All very admirable precautions I admit.

Why then are the same measures not being employed here in Alabama. Here, the ash is left in the weather to be spread by the winds as dust and rain that turns it into a slimy gray sludge. In Perry County trucks are hauling the leachate from landfill through downtown Uniontown and Demopolis with sludge dripping throughout the entire route. When it dries is becomes airborne for people to breath. When it rains it becomes a dangerous slippery mess that runs into the streams thus contaminating many more than we have documented.

Why are the people of Perry Count any less human that the more affluent white community of Swan Pond Tennessee?

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