The Disaster In Tennessee

I’m late to this story, but: what’s happening in Tennessee sounds horrific:

“A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated, according to an updated survey by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, gave way on Monday. But on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.

The amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.

A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority’s largest.

Mr. Moulton said Friday that the levels exceeded safety limits for drinking water, but that both metals were filtered out by water treatment processes.

Mercury and arsenic, he said, were “barely detectable” in the samples.”

This is much bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill. You can see aerial video here. I find it disturbing that the amount of fly ash now thought to have been released is over twice as much as the TVA originally thought was in the entire pond.

Fly ash has a lot of bad stuff in it. Besides this Scientific American article with the comforting title “Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste”, there’s this:

“A draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fly ash, a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity, does contain significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations. The report found that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.

Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.”

And guess what? It’s headed into the Chatanooga water supply. Oh goody. There are reports of fish kills, though a TVA spokesman claims they are not the result of toxic substances, but of a surge of water beaching a lot of fish. However, I can’t imagine a sudden influx of heavy metals and neurotoxins did the fish any good.

As David Roberts at Gristmill says, “There is no clean coal.”