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unEARTHED. The Earthjustice Blog

No EPA Progress on Anniversary of Coal Ash Disaster

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View Jared Saylor's blog posts
13 November 2013, 3:18 PM
Unregulated danger lurks in more than 1,400 coal ash sites
The massive coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008. (TVA)

It was early October, but the trees were still a vibrant green. Fall had not yet arrived and winter was still a distant concern in Kingston, TN. Fishing boats and jet skis were tied to docks along the Clinch River, and even though it was a Thursday morning it was obvious that folks in this small community were already gearing up for weekend fun.

This was the scene a few weeks ago when I arrived in Kingston with a group of about 40 journalists and activists to tour the ongoing cleanup of one of the biggest environmental disasters in our nation’s history. Five years before at 1 a.m., Dec. 22, 2008, as the town slept, a coal ash dumpsite at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant burst through a poorly constructed levee, releasing more than a billion gallons of toxic waste onto the sleeping town. A rumbling flood of contaminated waste rushed nearly six miles downstream. Donna Lisenby, of Waterkeeper Alliance, canoed down the rivers among giant “ashbergs,” 12-foot tall mounds of wet coal ash, as she tested waters shortly after the disaster.

The Kingston, TN, coal ash spill. In 2008, residents all along the Emory River woke up to the tragedy of 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash that spilled from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill covered 300 acres, destroyed homes, poisoned rivers and contaminated coves and residential drinking waters. (TVA)The Kingston coal ash spill. (TVA)

Miraculously, no one was injured. But two dozen houses were damaged or destroyed and more than 300 acres of shoreline and rivers were polluted. The plant operators have been cleaning up the mess ever since and are nearing completion. The disaster catapulted coal ash to the front pages. People asked, “What is coal ash?” and the answer was not pretty. The ash remaining from burning coal at power plants is often full of toxic metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and more.

The event sparked a national effort to establish the first ever federal safeguards for coal ash, which is dumped at more than 1,400 sites across the country. But five years later there still are no federal protections. Despite the size and severity of the Kingston spill, the EPA has continued to drag its feet. Polluters have seized on the delay, turning to their supporters in Congress to repeatedly introduce legislation that would prohibit the EPA from ever setting federal regulations for coal ash.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only story of coal ash contamination. Over the coming weeks in this blog, some of our partners and colleagues will write their stories about coal ash. Communities in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Alaska and more are dealing with their own environmental disasters. Our friends at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy will be telling the stories of coal ash contamination in Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and other southern states.

Earthjustice and a dozen other environmental and public health organizations recently won a lawsuit that will require the Environmental Protection Agency to set a deadline for regulating coal ash. They should know these stories of coal ash contamination. Let’s hope that by the 6th anniversary, long overdue protections are finally in place.


(View the interactive version)

The Coal Ash Problem.

(View the interactive version)

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Thanks Donna. It was surreal to finally visit a site I spent so much time working on five years after the disaster. Your hard work and commitment to protecting the thousands of communities exposed to toxic coal ash inspires and informs. The photos you took right after the Kingston spill, the water sampling, the community outreach and the tireless follow up have helped us continue the fight in Tennessee and here in Washington. We're getting closer to a solution but definitely can't give up! Keep up the great work and looking forward to partnering even more in the future.

This is a excellent written account of the Kingston coal ash spill. It's as if you were there with me, paddling through the ashbergs. The time I spent there collecting water, sediment and fish samples haunts my soul. With all the additional coal ash ponds I have inspected and found leaking heavy metals since Kingston, I worry that the next time one of these giant ash pond dams fails, people will be killed. Although the Kingston disaster profoundly impacted many families whose homes were no longer safe to live in, they were somewhat blessed by fate. At least the Kingston dam failed on a cold winter night not on a hot summer day when the Emory River was full of people swimming, boating and fishing. The next time might not be so lucky. That is why it is so important for the EPA to get off it's sorry spineless backside, finalize the rule and regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste. Thanks for all your hard work to try and make that happen.

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