In a stunning victory for victims of the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash disaster, a federal judge in Knoxville, Tennessee ruled that TVA is responsible for damages caused by the massive spill.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan ruled that TVA’s decisions concerning the location and design of the Kingston Fossil Plant’s enormous, six-story coal ash pond, including the practice of repeated vertical expansions and faulty maintenance, led to the failure of the dam. The dam burst Dec. 22, 2008, releasing more than 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge that destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and buried 300 acres of the surrounding area.
Nearly four years after the disaster, the finding of negligence allows the claims from 800 affected property owners to finally move ahead against TVA.
But the wounds run deep in Harriman. Beneath the surface of the beautiful Emory River, a half-million tons of coal ash filled with arsenic, mercury and selenium still smother the sediment. The spill tore apart the close-knit river community. In the aftermath of the destruction, TVA bought 180 damaged properties, but longtime resident Sarah McCoin never left; her family has owned property along the river for generations. Sarah can’t put a price tag on the loss of her community nor on the long-term environmental and health impacts.
“It’s infiltrated so much of our lives you start to become numb to it: The water’s not good, don’t swim in the river, don’t eat the fish, if you fall overboard, hurry up and get back on your kayak” McCoin told CNN.
Nevertheless, Sarah is optimistic about the impact of this landmark decision:
Today’s ruling is the beginning of a new chapter, not just for my community, which remains impacted with ash in our rivers but also with the environmental watch that will occur for 30 years from today. We are ever concerned about the environmental and health impact of coal ash in our community, and I have personally learned our community is simply one of many coal ash impact zones across our United States.
While Harriman residents understand that they are not alone, the Environmental Protection Agency and a band of U.S. senators clearly do not. Ignoring nearly 500,000 comments demanding strong rules to protect our communities from toxic coal ash and avert another disaster, the EPA has indefinitely delayed regulations to require safe disposal of this waste. The absence of leadership from the dministration has proven favorable for industry and 24 senators who are co-sponsoring S.3512, a bill that seeks to reduce utilities’ responsibility to protect communities like Harriman from another toxic tsunami. S.3512 is a cynical response to a terrible tragedy.
The Senate bill requires nothing more than TVA did in the decades leading up to the spill. S.3512 requires only annual inspections of the nation’s aging coal ash dams, with no requirement to fix problems or alert regulators to structural deficiencies that could lead to a collapse. Instead of learning from the past, S.3512 codifies the mistakes that led to the Kingston disaster and makes them the model for management of hundreds of coal ash dams holding back billions of gallons of toxic sludge. The fact that this model ended in tragedy is, strangely, no deterrent to the senators.
Last week, the federal court ruled that such shoddy management is not good enough for Tennessee residents. The court’s unambiguous determination of liability must inform public policy. Stacking wet waste in earthen impoundments decade after decade without engineering analyses, prompt attention to problems and emergency action plans is a recipe for disaster and, in the end, a deadly and extremely expensive way to do business. This must not become the law of the land.