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Tr-Ash Talk: Not a Day to Celebrate

So much has happened since that terrible day three years ago when more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge burst through a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, about 150 miles from Nashville.

For starters, the Environmental Protection Agency, which had promised to move swiftly to protect the public from future coal ash disasters soon after the TVA spill, has still not finalized a national rule.  In the absence of EPA action, more contamination has been uncovered at 19 new sites and additional disasters have occurred, such as the October 31, 2011 25,000-ton coal ash spill in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a bluff collapsed sending coal ash and debris from We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant into Lake Michigan.

We also have learned that these manmade disasters are entirely preventable.  Harriman property owners sued the TVA for alleging that the company was negligent in maintaining facilities and training employees, which resulted in the spill. A federal trial on those challenges began in September, with startling revelations, among them this Knoxville News Sentinel article indicating that TVA officials doctored reports and had inadequately trained engineers inspecting coal ash ponds.  The closing arguments were in October; a decision likely could take months.

Finally, this week we’ve got more bad news: a number of the TVA’s coal ash pond dikes were built using coal ash as the construction material, much like the failed pond at the Kingston plant. A report by an expert hydro-geologist from Geo-Hydro, Inc. found that TVA’s “Ash Island” impoundment at its Johnsonville Plant was partially constructed using coal ash. Following the Kingston disaster, engineering reports found that degraded ash inside Kingston dam contributed to the failure. The hydro-geologist report detailed that when coal ash is exposed to water over long periods of time, the ash will degrade, leading to weakened structural integrity and possible failure of ponds.

Over at the Kingston site, cleanup continues, with the TVA already spending $750 million of the expected $1.1-$1.2 billion cost of cleanup.

In an E&E News report, Sarah McCoin, who lives less than two miles from the ash pond, recalls the day of the spill. "It's as vivid as if it happened yesterday," McCoin is quoted saying. "The shock was beyond belief. You're not prepared for that."

And although officials claim the Emory River is safe, McCoin said, “I don’t go in the river anymore. It freaks me out.”

The TVA Kingston spill destroyed a community. The E&E article explains that several residents took payoffs and settled elsewhere, never to be heard from again. How many more of these catastrophes must we endure?

Yesterday, the EPA took a historic step and set the first-ever health standards to limit the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Those standards were more than two decades in the making.  

While we applaud this historic step, which is a victory for clean air, it must be understood that these air emission standards will significantly increase the levels of toxic metals and other pollutants in coal ash.  It makes no sense to protect our air from these toxic substances, and then fail to protect our drinking water and our communities from their deadly impacts when they end up in the solid waste.

The Obama administration must finish the critical job of keeping our drinking water, waterways and communities safe from toxic ash.  Three years has been too long to wait.   


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