Friday, December 26, 2008

Toxic Spill Threatens East Tennessee

Writers in the blogging world have been hard at work gathering and reporting information from the enormous environmental disaster which saw millions and millions of cubic yards of toxic coal sludge from TVA's Kingston power plant bring destruction across the Roane County countryside and into East Tennessee waterways. (NOTE: Please see my latest update here.)

The first estimate from TVA claimed just over a million cubic yards had roared across the area following the collapse of a dike wall holding back the coal ash waste. Today, they tripled that amount, again "estimating" the total was more like 5.4 million cubic yards.

Some of the best coverage can be found at Enclave - who has been hard at work gathering details, including how the major networks and cable news television totally missed the story and then decided it was newsworthy after all. He also notes United Mountain Defense Report which reports accidents at the site have been common in recent months:

It maintains that Kingston residents told their correspondents that TVA dealt with leaks in the ash pond wall in 2004, 2006, and a month and a half ago. TVA officials originally speculated that recent excess rain and abnormally low temperatures were possible causes of the breach."

The NYTimes reports:

Federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems. But with no official word on the dangers of the sludge in Tennessee, displaced residents spent Christmas Eve worried about their health and their property, and wondering what to do.

Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority: “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”

Mr. Francis said contaminants in water samples taken near the spill site and at the intake for the town of Kingston, six miles downstream, were within acceptable levels.

But 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.

In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter federal controls of coal ash, but backed away in the face of fierce opposition from utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials. At the time, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of power utilities, estimated that the industry would have to spend up to $5 billion in additional cleanup costs if the substance were declared hazardous. Since then, environmentalists have urged tighter federal standards, and the E.P.A. is reconsidering its decision not to classify the waste as hazardous.

Another 2007 E.P.A. report said that over about a decade, 67 towns in 26 states had their groundwater contaminated by heavy metals from such dumps.

For instance, in Anne Arundel County, Md., between Baltimore and Annapolis, residential wells were polluted by heavy metals, including thallium, cadmium and arsenic, leaching from a sand-and-gravel pit where ash from a local power plant had been dumped since the mid-1990s by the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company."

At the Knoxville News Sentinel, blogger Michael Silence has more, as does the KNS' Jack Lail.

RoaneViews writers are also on the story.

There are many questions about current safety, officials ever-changing stories and what -if any - health issues are being aggressively pursued. Since TVA's CEO just earned a record multi-million dollar salary, let's see if he is worth it. As Senator Lamar Alexander told the press in October when news of the massive pay raise was made:

The TVA board should be sensitive to keeping its costs down, especially at a time when Tennesseans are hurting,” he said. “But TVA is the largest utility in the country and it’s got to recruit competent people to run the agency, including its nuclear plants, and it need pay them a competitive wage in order to keep them."

Many people are truly in peril today due to this massive disaster, Mr. Senator. And let's hope like hell competence is the least of their virtues.

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