Massive Coal Ash Spill Leads to Challenge of Tennessee Valley Authority

Local residents, environmental advocates: “Coal is not clean”


Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500


A coalition of local residents and environmental groups has put the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on notice today for its negligence surrounding the tragic December 22 coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee. In collaboration with dozens of neighbors whose property was directly affected by the spill, the groups Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, Earthjustice, Public Justice, and Sierra Club are requesting that a federal court oversee the cleanup and remediation and that the responsible parties compensate local residents.


"This catastrophic spill was a colossal tragedy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority could have avoided this disaster had it taken its responsibilities seriously," said Bruce Nilles, Director of Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign. "This massive spill reminds us that coal is not clean, and coal is not cheap."

On December 22, 2008, an earthen dam for a coal ash waste impoundment failed at the Kingston Fossil Plant, releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of coal ash sludge and contaminated water into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and onto more than 300 acres of nearby land. Most of this potentially toxic waste remains in or near those waters. The spill left behind piles of coal ash waste that will continue to leach and channel toxic chemicals into those two rivers and other groundwater whenever it rains.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing found more than 100 times the maximum Arsenic level allowed by the federal government in the Emory River near the spill site. The metals in this coal ash sludge may also become airborne as particulates when the ash dries out.

"We need to remember that TVA operates ten other coal-fired power plants, each with its own ash waste disposal problems," said Axel Ringe, Sierra Club Tennessee Chapter Vice Conservation Chair. "Although TVA deservedly gets primary blame for this disaster, all the agencies involved must improve the oversight and permitting processes."

The Tennessee River is the source of drinking water for the City of Kingston, Tennessee, and the Watts Bar Reservoir downstream is used by several communities for their drinking water supply. This poses a substantial health risk to persons who consume contaminated water, eat contaminated fish, or breathe airborne dust.

"We are talking about an environmental crisis of epic proportions," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, who is representing Sierra Club in the case. "Not to mention the slow-motion disaster taking place at coal ash dumps all over the country, where 130 million tons of this toxic waste pile up each year and threaten to seep into drinking water supplies."

"This spill has contaminated the land and water near the spill and threatened the health of dozens of families who own property, use the river, and breathe the air near the plant," says Mary Parker, a Nashville attorney (and former President of Public Justice) who is representing dozens of local residents whose property is affected by the spill. "The TVA needs to clean up this mess and compensate the residents for their losses."

The groups sent the TVA a formal notice of intent to sue today. The Sierra Club is represented by Joe Lovett with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, Jim Hecker with Public Justice, Lisa Evans and Deborah Goldberg at the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. Mary Parker at Parker & Crofford represents the local residents. 

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