While the current amount of coverage on the 1 billion gallon coal ash spill in Harriman, TN is definitely lacking compared to how devastating this disaster is, the amount of coverage is more than 4 times what the Martin County, KY spill of 2000 received, based on a quick Google search.
The Kentucky coal slurry spill, which was only one third the size of this recent coal-related event, was at that time considered by the EPA (which is not known for over exaggeration of the severity of events) to be “the largest environmental disaster east of the Mississippi.”
While media complacency and cultural bias against the rural (and not so rural) South existed back in 2000 and still exists today, there are new tools to help us bypass them. Blogs. Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Flickr. I could go on, but you “get the picture” (and if you don’t, you can search for it, and SOMEBODY, SOMEWHERE has posted it on the internet).
Volunteer organizations and individuals were largely responsible for creating the buzz that has injected this disaster into the national news media, folks like the all-volunteer United Mountain Defense, who have been on the ground in Harriman from the very day the spill occurred. One of the first things UMD did was to start blogging. They posted pictures, videos and updates that kept the world appraised of the situation when most everyone else was on holiday.
Dave Cooper, a long-time anti-mountaintop removal activist who travels the country with his Mountaintop Removal Road Show, then ran with the news, posting videos from Knoxville News (which has also done a great job getting information out) and getting in touch with and contacting Sierra Club, which posted blog posts of their own.
It was like wildfire (or a huge coal ash wave) from that point on. Freelance journalist Amy Gahran started a campaign on Twitter to tag stories about the spill. More YouTube videos appeared. When the Riverkeepers and I paddled the Emory River to get water samples, I twittered our experience in real time, and later uploaded our videos and experiences on YouTube and FaceBook. It was actually through Twitter that Huffington Post, another example of new media, asked me to blog about the TVA disaster.
Then, directly impacted citizens of Harriman, TN, after shaking off the shock I imagine they felt, started to tell their stories through this new media. One especially poignant blog is written by a woman whose grandson became sick soon after the spill. She is angry, and understandably so. One of her blog post headings says it all, “If We Don’t Ask Questions, We won’t get ANY answers. NO ONE can tell me to stop….”
I am hopeful we will see even more examples of this new media from the impacted residents. The newest video from a resident who goes by “Molly,” intermixes personal before and after images of the Emory River- some with her kids and pets- with media clips and dramatic music. Not only does it give us a peek into what these residents are going through, but hopefully gives these residents some feeling of catharsis. Call it art therapy with a digital twist.
It is important to tell stories, as well as for those stories to be heard. They are what connect us to our fellow human beings, and are the vehicles to deliver lessons we desperately need to learn. Hopefully, the “old media” will take note that if they don’t get the story out, somebody else with a computer can and will.
We cannot let the story of this coal ash disaster, which experts are already calling “the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States,” fade away. All media, new and old, cannot allow that to happen.
PS. Thanks to C-SPAN for NOT televising the Senate Oversight Hearing on the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Recent Major Coal Ash Spill.