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River Runs Black: The Devastating Coal Ash Spill on the Emory River

Bridget Daugherty was leaving her home along the Emory River in Tennessee just before Christmas in 2008 when she noticed the roof to her neighbor's dock had crashed to the ground. Her surprise turned to horror as she saw what brought it down—an oozing gray muck 20 feet deep in places.

Massive piles of the toxic sludge had replaced the once-clear and scenic water of the tranquil cover, destroyed Daugherty's beautiful landscape and inundated everything around her home.

"I went on to work and called my husband. He came home and called me and said, 'You're not going to believe this. It's astronomical'."

Like the Daughertys, residents all along the river were waking 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.

As local, state and federal officials began asking why this happened, TVA spokespeople tried to downplay the toxic threat. Residents couldn't wait for answers—they were forced to move out. Over the next few days, the nation began to understand the true cost of our addiction to coal. Coal-fired power plants generate millions of tons of toxic coal ash every year. Often stored in unlined, unprotected pits and sludge ponds, coal ash contains unsafe levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, and other toxic metals known to cause cancer and damage organs.

The Earthjustice Response

Earthjustice moved swiftly in response to this crisis. Our attorneys met with regulators, members of Congress and their staff and local residents to identify ways to prevent accidents like this from happening in the future, and to protect local communities living near the hundreds of other coal ash sites across the country. Earthjustice also released the report Waste Deep, detailing the problems of unregulated coal ash disposal in surface mines  and has formally requested the Environmental Protection Agency to create enforceable federal regulations to ensure that communities in all states are protected.

Unfortunately, Harriman is not alone. Coal ash sites in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states have poisoned drinking waters, elevated cancer risks and polluted rivers and streams. The spill in Harriman was the spark to light a fire under the Obama administration to recognize that coal ash is hazardous to public health and must be regulated.

But for Bridget Daugherty and other residents along the Emory River, any changes in policy will have come too late. "We worked for 30 years to have our little piece of heaven and our little dream," said resident Melinda Hillman. "In a matter of seconds, that was all gone."