TVA Five Years Later—Lessons Not Learned

Attorney Lisa Evans visited Harriman, TN, five years after the nation's worst coal ash spill. After half a decade and more than a billion dollars, the visible ash is gone, but so is the entire neighborhood closest to the plant.

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It’s been almost five years since the TVA Kingston coal ash disaster blanketed an idyllic riverfront community in toxic waste.

I revisited the site earlier this month, and the progress of the ongoing Superfund mega-cleanup is evident. One can once again see what brought generations to settle in this scenic valley, amid the broad rivers, quiet bays and gentle green mountains.

In Harriman, Tennessee, families enjoyed vibrant waterfront recreation off sandy beaches along the calm sloughs. Before 2008, every riverfront home had a dock, and the neighborhoods were tight, sharing a common love of the beauty and bounty of the water and mountains. In December 2008, all this was destroyed by the dam’s collapse.

House nearly buried by TVA Kingston Disaster, December 2008.

In February of 2009, with the river still full of toxic “ashbergs,” I visited Swan Pond Road and walked through a neighborhood of riverfront homes. Helicopters buzzed overhead, dropping hay and chemicals to hold down dust from the sludge “bergs” rising 40 feet above the river.

A light snow swirled, and a lone cold dog sniffed the ruined shoreline. The tsunami of sludge that burst from the broken impoundment deposited its poison on the shoreline and extended as far as the eye could see. The violence of the spill grotesquely twisted the steel of docks, carried away wooden piers, and dragged several homes from their foundations. In a community that thrived on the water, the toxic sludge buried its dreams.

After five years and more than a billion dollars, the visible ash is gone, but so is the entire neighborhood closest to the plant. TVA purchased 180 properties from homeowners willing to promise that they would never seek further damages, and their homes were leveled without a trace. According to the TVA, the empty land will be a park in a few years. As my TVA-led tour drove through the eerie emptiness, no mention was made of the families whose homes were destroyed. On this post-apocalyptic tour for the Society of Environmental Journalists, no one would have known the neighborhood ever existed. TVA described this empty land as the “bow on the package” of TVA’s multi-year toxic waste cleanup.

The cleanup has resulted, according to EPA, in construction of the “Hoover Dam” of coal ash impoundments, whose concrete-reinforced walls are built to last 2,500 years, through earthquakes and floods. This structure will permanently impound the millions of tons of ash that did not escape that night in December 2008, plus ash dredged from the river that was not sent to Alabama. It is unlikely that this dam will fail again.

However, the threat from coal ash remains. The 1,700-MW Kingston plant still churns out 1,000 tons of toxic ash daily. While the TVA converted its operations to dry disposal, it still does not safely dispose of its coal ash. Unfettered by federal or state requirements, the TVA now dumps millions of tons of coal ash in an unlined landfill with no leachate collection system.

Yes, at the site of the worst toxic waste disaster in U.S. history, where at least half a million tons of arsenic-laden coal ash now reside permanently in the river, the state of Tennessee has allowed the TVA to dump anew in an unlined landfill, despite the certainty that toxic metals will leak to underlying groundwater and into an ecosystem still trying to recover from the 2008 disaster.

Apparently few lessons were learned. The TVA never assumed blame for the catastrophe that was entirely its own making. And TVA’s current ash disposal is a virtual middle finger at generally accepted good engineering practices for coal ash landfills.

Furthermore, its recently issued permit under the Clean Water Act contains absolutely no limits on the levels of arsenic and selenium in their voluminous discharges to the river. Lastly, TVA’s pledge to convert all of its coal burning plants from wet to dry disposal has been postponed at least four years, with only a single plant out of 11 having been converted over the last five years.

Lessons indeed were also ignored by Tennessee, whose laws still do not require safe disposal of coal ash and whose permits reflect a callous indifference to the poisoning of groundwater and surface water. As usual, the EPA is asleep at the wheel.

Who bears witness to the continuing harm? With all traces of the plant’s closest neighbors rubbed out, the country must watch closely. We must continue to demand that federal laws be put in place as soon as possible to protect all communities near hundreds of coal-burning power plants. Progress is too little and too late.

Specializing in hazardous waste law, Lisa is an expert on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal that burdens communities around the nation.

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.