One Year Later: America's Worst Environmental Disaster Continues with No Regulatory Relief in Sight

Spill in Tennessee Dec. 22, 2008, sent 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into nearby homes, rivers, and communities


Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 236-5855

It’s been one year and piles of coal ash still remain. Train cars full of the toxic waste move from Kingston, Tennessee to Perry County, Alabama. The few remaining residents along the Clinch and Emory Rivers say the cleanup goes on, but not much of the scenery has changed. They describe it as a moonscape, a war zone, a sad sight.

One year ago, a billion gallons of toxic coal ash — the leftovers from coal-fired power plants that contain dangerously high levels of arsenic, selenium and other toxins — burst through a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Plant. It spread across 300 acres, destroying dozens of homes and poisoning the Emory and Clinch Rivers.

The nation quickly took notice. Congress convened hearings about the disaster and brought experts in to discuss the impacts that coal ash has not only in Kingston, but at similar sites across the U.S. Local newspapers wrote about coal ash ponds in other parts of the country. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson vowed that her agency would introduce the first ever federal regulations on coal ash ponds by the end of this year. But just last week, the EPA announced they were going to delay federal coal ash regulations “due to the complexity of the analysis the agency is currently finishing.”

“We’re obviously disappointed that the EPA couldn’t get these regulations out to the public before the end of this year,” said Earthjustice attorney and coal ash expert Lisa Evans. “Power industry lobbyists have relentlessly pressured EPA, the White House, and other federal agencies to back off regulating toxic ash. Polluters are spreading baseless fears about cost and compliance. But what we know to be true is that the tragedy that happened in Tennessee is just waiting to happen again unless the EPA acts quickly and forces stronger protections.”

In March, the EPA sent letters to every coal ash pond owner seeking information about the size, age, location and last inspection of coal ash ponds. 584 coal ash ponds were tallied, but some companies refused to turn over the information, citing “confidential business information” claims.

In June, the EPA identified 49 “high hazard” coal ash ponds, where the failure of a dam will probably cause a loss of human life. But it wasn’t until members of Congress and environmental groups got involved that EPA decided to share the list of high hazard sites with the public.

“For 30 years, these coal ash ponds have gone unnoticed and unchecked,” Evans added. “It’s sad to think that it took a tragedy such as what happened in Tennessee to get our government to finally take notice.”

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