Tennessee coal ash slide creates widespread environmental disaster

BlogHer Original Post

Unless you follow blogs and Twitter, you probably didn't catch the news that an environmental disaster is unfolding in Tennessee that, according to experts, dwarfs the damage done by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

Early Monday morning, a dam containing tons of coal ash burst  in Harriman, Tennessee, burying an estimated 400-acre area in a 6-foot pile of toxic sludge. The dam belonged to the Kingston Fossil plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It produced fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning that contains troubling levels of lead, mercury and other heavy metals. That's in addition to being "100 times more radioactive than nuclear waste" according to Scientific American magazine and Dr. Steven Chu -- the man that Pres. Elect Barack Obama has tapped to run his Department of Energy.

You can get a look at the mess first hand from this aerial video by Knoxnews.com:


Here's an assessment from Wendy Redal, at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism:

The TVA spill, nearly 50 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, has forced the evacuation of 15 homes. One was ripped from its foundations by the cascade of poison waste, and a man who narrowly escaped the collapse of his home is currently hospitalized. .The spill has killed multitudes of fish that are washing up on the shores of several rivers, whose waters are opaque with oily gray ash.


According to a statement this evening from the TVA, there were no injuries. The TVA estimates that the cleanup may take weeks. However, the Nashville Tennesseean reports some experts say the damage will take years to clean up.

Despite the dimensions of the disaster, it fell to bloggers to break the story outside of the local news area. Amy Gahran noted that the lack of national media coverage follows CNN controversial announcement that it's cutting its technology and environmental staff in this post published tonight at Poynter.org:

This might not be surprising from CNN, which earlier this month cut its entire science, environment, and technology news team. Not surprisingly, the Society of Environmental Journalists and several other journalism organizations have formally protested the CNN cuts.

Of course, CNN Center in Atlanta is only about 200 miles from Harriman, TN -- just a three-hour drive... They could have thrown a regional news team on the story, but....

But Gahran was among the bloggers who has stepped into the breach. She created a Twitter hashtag #coalash to track and disseminate the latest news. (For non-twitter users -- a hashtag is a way of annotating twitter messages that makes related "tweets" easy to find.)

This isn't just a regional disaster. According to Kevin Grandia, it's an important data point in the national debate over "clean coal" as a partial solution to America's energy woes:

When it comes to PR spindoctoring there is always one surefire cure - reality.

It also comes at the same time that activists urged Obama to void a pending federal rule that would make it easier for power plant operators to dump coal waste in abandoned mines. According to the activists, such a rule could aggravate water pollution. They said 23 states are already seeing water contamination from coal waste. During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged support for clean coal technology.

As Grandia notes, from Greenpeace has called for a criminal investigation into the disaster. Their press release states, in part:

"Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster," said Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable."

Note: Special thanks to Amy Gahran who helped me understand the problem posed by coal ash 



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