View Full Version : TVA spills over 500 million gallons of toxic coal waste into the Tennessee River

12-24-2008, 08:07 AM

(CNN) -- A wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from a coal plant in central Tennessee broke this week, spilling more than 500 million gallons of waste into the surrounding area.


Environmental Protection Agency officials are on the scene and expect the cleanup to to take four to six weeks.

The sludge, a byproduct of ash from coal combustion, was contained at a retention site at the Tennessee Valley Authority's power plant in Kingston, about 40 miles east of Knoxville, agency officials said.

The retention wall breached early Monday, sending the sludge downhill and damaging 15 homes. All the residents were evacuated, and three homes were deemed uninhabitable, a TVA spokesman told CNN.
The plant sits on a tributary of the Tennessee River called the Clinch River.

"We deeply regret that a retention wall for ash containment at our Kingston Fossil Plant failed, resulting in an ash slide and damage to nearby homes," TVA said in a statement released Tuesday.

YouTube - TVA Coal Ash Spill Dec 22 2008

12-30-2008, 05:50 PM


http://msnbcmedia1.msn.com/i/msnbc/Components/Sources/Art/APTRANS.gifupdated 9:42 a.m. PT, Tues., Dec. 30, 2008

KINGSTON, Tenn. - A week after more than a billion gallons of coal ash broke through a retention pond dike and roared into a small river cove, the landscape has turned into a muddy pit that's little like the scenic spot that attracted people to live here.

The Emory River is clogged with giant chunks of gray ash sticking out of the water and trees ripped out by their roots and washed downstream during the Dec. 22 disaster. Ducks float in a film of sand-like residue on the surface. Dozens of pieces of heavy equipment are digging along the river to try to clean it of coal ash.

The Kingston Steam Plant, a coal-fired power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, sits on the confluence of two rivers, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.
Story continues below ↓ (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28435711/#storyContinued)The deluge destroyed three houses, displaced a dozen families and damaged 42 parcels of land, but there were no serious injuries.

There are 62 pieces of heavy machinery slowly gathering up the spilled ash from residential roads, railroad tracks and the river, plant manager Ron Hall said Monday.

But no one at TVA can say how long the cleanup will take and how thorough the restoration can be.

"It's almost like someone dying, because it's so permanent," said Crystell Flinn, whose home was swept away.

New ponds not likely
Hall said workers will pull the sludge out of the river using barges and skimmers, and dump trucks will carry it to a different site at the plant. But the material won't return to the large riverside retention ponds still there.

"We will not likely put in wet ash ponds again, even though they have shown to be structurally integral," TVA environmental executive Anda Ray said Monday. "We are looking at options for what to do long term for that ash disposal, but there are dry ash pond technologies."

In the days after the spill, officials are finding more reasons to be concerned about the possible harmful long-term effects. Federal officials on Monday cautioned residents who use private wells or springs to stop drinking the water.

But the area isn't densely populated, and TVA said that no more than four wells are in the spill area.

Samples taken near the spill slightly exceed drinking water standards for toxic substances, and arsenic in one sample was higher than the maximum level allowed for drinking water, according to a press release from TVA, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

Federal officials should have tests on the affected wells sometime this week.

"I think they (the wells) were beyond the actual slide point of the material," EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles said. "There shouldn't be direct impact, but that's why they are sampling."
Authorities have said the municipal water supply is safe to drink.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, but elevated levels can cause ailments ranging from nausea to partial paralysis, and long-term exposure has been linked to several types of cancer, according to the EPA.

Ray said arsenic levels were high because of the type of measurement that the EPA used, which included soil mixed in with water.

"Those samples were not dissolved arsenic," Ray said. "The dissolved arsenic, which is what you look at for drinking water samples, are undetectable in all the cases. The elevated arsenic that the EPA is referring to is the data that we collected when it was stirred up. It is routinely filtered out through all water treatment plants."

Dust concerns
Environmental concerns could shift when the sludge containing the fly ash, a fine powdery material, dries out. The EPA and TVA have begun air monitoring and on Monday advised people to avoid activities that could stir up dust, such as children or pets playing outside.


Wade Payne / Greenpeace via AP

Some of the coal ash slurry was left behind when a containment pond burst at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant.

The dust can contain metals, including arsenic, that irritate the skin and can aggravate pre-existing conditions like asthma, Niles said.

The EPA recommends that anyone exposed to the dust should wash thoroughly with soap and water and wash the affected clothes separately from other garments.

Ray said TVA will start installing sprinkler systems in areas where the ash has dried out to keep it moist.

Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.


12-31-2008, 06:58 AM
Tennessee Spill The Exxon Valdez Of Coal Ash?

by Elizabeth Shogren (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4566209)
Audio for this story will be available at approx. 9:00 a.m. ET

http://media.npr.org/news/images/2008/dec/26/tncoal/gallery_promo200.jpg (http://www.npr.org/news/images/2008/dec/26/tncoal/)http://download.npr.org/anon.npr-www/chrome/icon_arrow_orange.gif Coal Ash Covers Eastern Tennessee (http://www.npr.org/news/images/2008/dec/26/tncoal/)

Morning Edition (http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=3), December 31, 2008 There aren't a lot of answers yet about what caused the catastrophic Dec. 22 spill of coal ash from a Tennessee Valley Authority plant near Knoxville. But the disaster has raised lots of questions about whether regulations of coal ash are strict enough.
Coal ash is the stuff that's left over after coal-fired power plants generate electricity and strip out pollutants. Plants produce about 130 million tons of it every year.
"That's enough to fill a line of railroad boxcars stretching all the way from the U.S. to Australia," says Eric Schaeffer, head of a watchdog group called the Environmental Integrity Project. He says he's been watching the growing heaps of coal ash stored at 440 electricity plants around the United States.
In the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, the waste had been accumulating for half a century. The mountain of sludge covered more than 100 acres and rose 65 feet into the air before an earthen dam burst, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that fouled homes and about 300 acres, as well as a river.
Glen Pugh manages solid waste for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and is in charge of regulating the landfill. He says that despite the accident, the regulations were adequate, and TVA was following them.
"I do think our regulations provide for the proper checks and reviews and evaluations," Pugh says. "Something happened here that was unexpected."
Schaeffer says the accident came as no surprise to him.
"We saw this several years ago in Pennsylvania. A little town named Forward Township got buried in a landslide of fly ash," he says. "We went in and tested the ash, and it turned out to be toxic, also full of arsenic just like the TVA site."
Schaeffer says disasters are waiting to happen in other places because coal ash isn't subject to strict federal regulations that govern hazardous wastes. Instead, it's up to states to regulate it — and some don't. Most treat coal ash as though it's not toxic.
"The prevailing myth is that it's safe," Schaeffer says. "We have EPA buying into that for years and really refusing to regulate this material for what it is, which is highly toxic ash that leashes metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury into drinking water and rivers and creeks."
In 1980, Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste. The agency said no in 1993, but kept researching the question. In 2000, the EPA said it should be regulated, but as a nonhazardous waste. So far, however, the agency hasn't produced any rules.
Matt Hale, head of the EPA's solid waste office, says the agency has been studying the problem for 28 years. It's taken so long because, he says, "there's been a significant amount of technical work. Simply, the process has required this amount of time."
Some people think federal oversight is unnecessary. Jim Roewer of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group says states are doing a fine job of regulating the hundreds of ash pits around the country.
"I think that we've only seen four of these rather spectacular events over the last 50 years would underscore the fact that this really isn't an epidemic problem or trend that would call for federal intervention," Roewer says.
But environmentalists say the TVA ash slide will become the Exxon Valdez of the coal industry — and force government to finally regulate coal ash storage.

01-21-2009, 10:21 PM
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The Current for January 21, 2009:

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Part 3: Tennessee Coal Ash Spill - Local Resident

The residents of Kingston, Tennessee are coping with what's being called one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Imagine 4 Billion litres of toxic black sludge covering 300 acres of land. That's roughly 40 times bigger in volume than the oil spill that leaked out of the now-infamous Exxon Valdez ... after the vessel struck a reef off the coast of Alaska 20 years ago.

But this new spill is in the Tennessee heartland. On December 22nd, an earthen dike near Kingston, Tennessee had been holding together a huge retention pond filled with coal ash slurry -- the waste produced by coal-burning power plants. The dike collapsed and the resulting wall of sludge destroyed three houses, covered 300 acres of land and contaminated two local rivers.

And now local residents fear for the safety of their drinking water, the value of their homes and the future of their community. Rick Cantrell lives in Kingston, Tennessee, about 60 kilometres outside of Knoxville.

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill - Appalachian Voices

The ironic thing about the disaster in Kingston is that it is the indirect result of legislation designed to combat air pollution. There was a time when the waste from coal-burning power plants would have been blown out of the plants' smokestacks. But thanks to the legislation, that waste must now be captured as solids and impounded in retention ponds. That's good for the air. But it's a serious risk to local water sources.

After the spill, the environmental group Appalachian Voices, oversaw a water testing campaign in Kingston. Matt Wasson is the group's Director of Programs and he was in Boone, North Carolina.

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill - Environmental Integrity Project

To make matters worse, the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee isn't an isolated incident. Less than three weeks after it happened, a similar facility in Alabama -- one that's also run by the Tennessee Valley Authority -- sprung a leak and spilled out close to 40 thousand litres of coal ash.

There are about 13-hundred similar coal ash sites in the United States ... many of them spanning 15-hundred acres or more. In 2007, power plants produced about 120 million tonnes of coal ash.

And according to a report released earlier this month by the Environmental Integrity Project, nearly 8 % of the coal ash sites pose a risk that's as great or greater than the one in Tennessee. Eric Schaeffer is the Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. He's also a former Director of Civil Enforcement with the Environmental Protection Agency and he was in Washington.

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill - Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority is the largest government-owned utility in the United States. It has about nine million customers. Much of the power it generates comes from coal-fire plants.

And many of those plants have coal ash ponds similar to the one that collapsed at its facility near Kingston, Tennessee. Barbara Martocci is a spokesperson with the TVA and she was in Knoxville, Tennessee.

04-11-2009, 10:57 AM
Drinking Water Threatened: TVA Tries to Hide Information About Water Contamination from Massive Coal Spill
By Kelly Hearn, The Nation.
April 3, 2009.
http://www.alternet.org/water/134964/drinking_water_threatened%3A_tva_tries_to_hide_inf ormation_about_water_contamination_from_massive_co al_spill/?page=entire

Third-party tests have found high levels of toxins in the river water and in private wells, while the TVA has assured residents the water is safe.

The Tennessee Valley Authority manipulated science methods to downplay water contamination caused by a massive coal ash disaster, according to independent technical experts and critics of the federally funded electrical company.

The TVA is the largest public provider of electricity in the nation, providing power to 670,000 homes and burning through some 14,000 tons of coal per day. On December 22 the authority made headlines when one of its retention ponds collapsed, letting loose an avalanche of coal ash -- the toxic residue left over when coal is burned. More than 5 million cubic yards of ashy mud pushed its way through a neighborhood and into Tennessee's Emory River, knocked houses off foundations and blanketed river water with plumes of gray scum that flowed downstream.

New evidence indicates that in the wake of the disaster, the TVA may have intentionally collected water samples from clean spots in the Emory River, a major supplier of drinking water for nearby cities and a popular site for recreational activities such as swimming and fishing. Third-party tests have found high levels of toxins in the river water and in private wells, while the TVA has assured residents that tap water, well water and river water are safe.

Contrary Data

In the days after the spill, the TVA assured the public that the coal ash was "inert material." But soon questions emerged about the chemistry of the ash, particularly the presence of toxic elements like selenium and arsenic. Scientists said the toxins were dissolving unseen into the Emory, which feeds into two other rivers -- the Tennessee and the Clinch -- and supplies municipal water treatment plants.

Trust in the authority, a massive local employer and an icon of the Roosevelt administration, has faded. In February an internal TVA memo obtained by the Associated Press showed that the authority was polishing its public statements. In that document, TVA officials changed the description of the disaster from "catastrophic" to "sudden" and "accidental" and removed the phrases "risk to public health" and "risk to the environment" as reasons for measuring water quality. At least four lawsuits have been filed since the December spill, and a federal judge has ordered the authority not to destroy any documents. Meanwhile, a recent survey by Tennessee's state health department said that one third of the residents living near the spill are reporting breathing problems.

Many residents question government claims that water treatment facilities will effectively filter tap water for toxins such as arsenic and selenium. They also voice deep concerns about a longer list of toxins swirling in untreated river water and those appearing, according to private water samples, in private drinking wells. Some residents have complained of a gray film in their tap water and of a burning sensation on their skin and in their eyes after taking a shower.

Officials have consistently maintained that the drinking water is safe. On December 23 the Environmental Protection Agency tested water near a municipal drinking water treatment plant and found arsenic 149 times higher than that allowed by federal drinking water standards. Yet in a public notice the agency said the heavy metal, which is linked to cancer, would "likely" be filtered out by municipal water treatment. Days later, with outrage and litigation mounting, a TVA environmental officer, Neil Carriker, told reporters that the gray goo in the river was made up of unsightly but harmless microscopic spheres of glass called cenospheres, which float in plumes downriver. In a December press conference, he assured the public that the river water and drinking water were safe, points consistently reiterated by the TVA.

But technical experts cite persistent, stark differences between water quality reported by independent parties and the reassuring reports offered by state and federal authorities.

Early in the disaster, for example, on January 9, the environmental group Appalachian Voices, working with a biology professor at Appalachian State University, took water samples from the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee Rivers, in which they found arsenic levels 300 times higher than the drinking water standard. The group documented wide differences between official TVA data and data collected by the group and other watchdog organizations. The TVA later reported data showing arsenic levels to be twenty times lower than safe standards. A little earlier, on December 30, two other environmental organizations -- the Tennessee-based United Mountain Defense and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington, DC, group founded by a former EPA regulator -- found arsenic in local river water to be eight times higher than safe levels. At another point, a Duke University test of standing water in a tributary of the Emory River showed arsenic was nine times higher than safe standards. Again, TVA tests were the only outliers. The authority's subsequent tests on January 14 found arsenic levels to be forty times lower than safe drinking water standards.

EIP and United Mountain Defense reported the results of further tests in February, which showed that water quality criteria for arsenic, lead, selenium, cadmium and copper had all been violated and that drinking water standards had been exceeded not only for arsenic but also for antimony, beryllium and lead -- which are toxic at certain doses. Experts say that, given the dynamics of river flow and contamination, test results will often vary, sometimes greatly. "You expect to find fluctuations," said Jeff Stant, a trained biologist and EIP official. "What's troubling is that TVA's data is suspiciously consistent." Gregory Button, an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee, shares Stant's concern. "In disaster situations like this, science is always a point of contention," he said. "But the difference is so large in this case that there's no trust."

When asked about early reports showing water quality differences, TVA spokesperson Barbara Martocci, speaking during a December interview with The Nation, chose not to comment on the data, saying only that the TVA uses EPA-certified laboratories. (Data reported by EIP and United Mountain Defense also came from EPA-certified labs.) The TVA is "eager to review the findings of any reports or studies that might show differences between TVA's water quality reports, and we will take those reports seriously," said TVA spokesperson Gil Francis. "I don't understand why the TVA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the EPA aren't finding the same problems as these private groups," Francis added.

Fixing the Results?

Chris Irwin, a lawyer with United Mountain Defense, said, "The gap between our data and theirs strongly suggests that the TVA has practiced selective testing." He pointed out that the cenospheres tell the naked eye where the chemical contamination is. "If you want to test clean," he said, "then you simply go to the side where the plume isn't." Charles Norris, the senior geochemist with the Colorado-based environmental geology firm Geo-Hydro, said that Tennessee's state-approved program for representing river water quality "has demonstrably been unable to account for the variability that's being picked up by third-party sampling."

In recent weeks, an inquiry in conjunction with The Nation Institute's Investigative Fund uncovered satellite positioning locations for the authority's water sampling stations inside a TVA dredging permit application. The data were pinpointed on aerial maps and shown to independent experts in an effort to determine whether the TVA skewed its choice of water sample sites.

Donna Lisenby, a river monitor for Appalachian Voices, said the location data gave critics a smoking gun. "You can skew the data by putting testing points in odd locations, such as behind a sandbar or far upriver away from the spill," she said. "The GPS locations show that that is what the TVA has been doing." Bob Gadinski, a former hydrologist for the State of Pennsylvania, said that the TVA's use of only five testing locations was "too few." He said the agency planned to test at a single depth for each location rather than at multiple depths and pointed out that at least three locations were placed at points in the river where contamination was less likely to reach (for example, one sample location should have been in the main channel of the river and was instead placed near the bank). After reviewing the GPS data, Gadinski concluded that "the TVA isn't interested in properly mapping the contaminants in that river." Representatives from EIP and United Mountain Defense, as well as a biology professor at Appalachian State University, all viewed the site locations; all agreed the locations were "intentionally biased for nonsignificance" in ways that would not give a true reading of the contamination map. In addition, Norris said the river monitoring programs of independent groups are "better programmed" to find and map contamination than the authority's testing program. According to Stant, "They either didn't know that this testing scheme was poorly designed, or they knew and didn't care."

At a March 5 community meeting, state and federal officials again reiterated that government testing shows air and water near the site to be safe. Meanwhile, Rick Cantrell, a member of Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors, an advocacy organization formed in the wake of the disaster, told the Associated Press that his group's water quality data has "either been disregarded or just brushed off by TVA." Button shares Cantrell's assessment. TVA officials, he said, "make these global statements and avoid having to answer real questions about the data discrepancies." At the minimum, he said, the authority should be more forthcoming about its science protocols.

Further Health Risks

Another issue raises concerns: the TVA's claim that cenospheres are inert. A study conducted in the 1970s by Alex Gabbard, now a retired scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, seems to show that the TVA misrepresented what is known about these particles. "It's true that cenospheres by themselves are harmless," said Gabbard, but his research determined that metals including uranium bind to the otherwise benign cenospheres, potentially turning them into a vector for toxins. "A main question, is," he said in an interview with The Nation, "What about all the other stuff in the ash?"

A cloud also hovers over the TVA's approach to well water sampling. By February 3 TDEC had sampled more than 100 private groundwater wells within a four-mile radius of the plant, announcing that all sample results were within safe drinking water standards. But, again, critics suggest the data lacked credibility.

"Our data showed all kinds of heavy metals in private wells," said Jeff Stant of the EIP. "I don't understand how official data can show otherwise." Stant told The Nation that while his team was not able to test wells at the spill site because they had been sealed off by the TVA, the wells EIP tested showed high levels of sodium, which poses a risk for people with heart problems, as well as the metals aluminum and manganese.

TDEC has issued an enforcement order against the TVA for violating water quality standards that protect aquatic wildlife, but an agency spokesperson said that "results to date have not indicated exceedances of the primary drinking standards for metals."

Kelly Hearn is an investigative reporter whose work has been funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the North American Congress on Latin America.

04-11-2009, 01:47 PM
"Our data showed all kinds of heavy metals in private wells," said Jeff Stant of the EIP. "I don't understand how official data can show otherwise." Stant told The Nation that while his team was not able to test wells at the spill site because they had been sealed off by the TVA, the wells EIP tested showed high levels of sodium, which poses a risk for people with heart problems, as well as the metals aluminum and manganese.Well, since the EIP hasn't sampled the nearby wells, they don't have a claim, do they? Check and mate! :re:

There is quite a history and tradition of authorities' manipulations of health figures in these matters, and if anyone think it has NOT increased in scope and application, well, I have a bridge in New York for sale cheap.

My local water company blends glacier water with its aerospace-contaminated well water to produce acceptable "average" water quality figures for its semi-annual reports. But the well water has some pollutants that are ingested at higher than recommended lovels for a pregnant woman if she has simply has several glasses of water a week! Sadly, part of the town gets the glacier water, the other part of the town gets the well water (which also tastes awful). Not a problem though, the "average" figures say all is A-OK!

(BTW, can we guess the relative income and home values of the two different parts of town as to who gets glacier water and who gets well water?)