Front Porch Blog

The Mayan Calendar Has Ended, And There is Still Coal Ash in the Tennessee River

So the world did not end today, as much of the discussion around the end of Mayan calendar seemed to suggest. But it might have seemed like that to the residents of Harriman, Tn. exactly four year ago today, when an earthen dam at a nearby power plant failed, and 1 billion gallons of coal ash waste flooded across fields and farmland and oozed into nearby rivers. The amount spilled is enough to fill 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Though no one was directly hurt or killed, the catastrophe at the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant surely devastated lives. People got sick from the fumes coming off the ash and had to boil their water. Property values plunged, compelling people to sell their homes and property to TVA. Dangerous heavy metals were released into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.

It was the first time a majority Americans learned what coal ash was and how dangerous it could be. People were shocked to know that a waste product from burning coal was most often dumped into unlined pits behind earthen dams. More shocking is the fact that, in the absence of federal standards coal ash — laced with heavy metals, known carcinogens and other toxins — is less regulated than household waste.

In the Southeast, we know there are 450 of these impoundments holding back 118 billion gallons of coal ash. Not only is there the risk of a dam breaking, there is the more insidious pollution of our waterways. (See if there is one near you).

I will never forget the day Donna Lisenby, Coal Campaign Coordinator for Waterkeeper Alliance, John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper and I traveled to “ground zero” and paddled to where the Emory River ceased being a river and began to look like a sludge pit. It looked like the end of the world. 

Little has happened since the TVA spill. Clean-up that was supposed to take a few weeks still isn’t completed. TVA has decided to allow “natural recovery” to take place, which basically means TVA will stop trying to dredge the river and see if Mother Nature might be able to finish the job with the remaining 9% of the ash still left. 

And we still don’t have federal rules for how utilities should manage disposal of this toxic waste. Some states, like North Carolina, now require coal ash dams to be inspected every 2 to 5 years, though only visually. And the state also now requires utilities to monitor groundwater near the dams, but has yet to do anything with those results which do show levels of pollution above state standards. But at least North Carolina has more information than other states. .

Some, like Alabama and Georgia have it much worse. Since there is no groundwater monitoring required in these state, the depth of the problem is not really known. And there are numerous cases where real people continue to be impacted, every day.

So, fours years after the TVA spill, it’s the same ol’ same ol’. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed, but not finalized a rule for managing coal ash. Worse, Congress wants to stop EPA from every doing that with a dangerous bill that the Congressional Research Service (PDF) reports would creates an essentially meaningless program without “detailed regulatory standards… [which is] unprecedented in federal environmental law.” The CRS found the bill lacks a clear “standard of protection” to guarantee that state programs actually protect human health and the environment, which is “unique among all federal environmental law.”

Let us resolve to continue to speak out on this issue and show that America still views clean water as a national priority. Because without clean water, the end of the world begins to seem a little more possible.





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