One Year Later, a Coal Ash Disaster Still Remains

Dec. 22 will be a day residents in Harriman will never forget

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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.



Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.