Friday, December 26, 2008

TVA's Toxic Coal Ash Disaster Impact May Last Years

The nearly 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash which surged across hundreds of acres in Roane County and into local waterways this week will have an unknowable impact on lives for an unknown time.

There are no regulations in place to document what deadly materials go into these lagoons - despite pleas for years for unified national standards. Much of the reason TVA has not been able to define the dangers of this spill is because they didn't know themselves what was in the lagoon nor were they even sure of the total amount of materials which was stored in the site.

Sue Sturgis reports at Facing South about the testimony presented to a congressional hearing in June from attorney Lisa Evans which was a clear warning about the inevitable effects of not regulating the hazardous waste created from burning coal:

he warned that the federal government's broken pledge to regulate disposal of the potentially dangerous material threatened the health and safety of communities across the country.

Speaking before a June 10 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources titled "How Should the Federal Government Address the Health and Environmental Risks of Coal Combustion Waste?," Evans pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in its Regulatory Determination on Wastes from the Combustion of Fossil Fuels published in 2000 that federal standards for disposal of coal combustion waste were needed to protect public health and the environment.

The federal failure to regulate the waste has put 23 states -- including Tennessee -- in a special bind, since their statutes have "no more stringent" provisions prohibiting them from enacting standards stricter than those found in federal law. Without federal action, those states can't regulate coal combustion waste disposal beyond the few obviously inadequate safeguards that now exist."

Sturgis goes on to report that highly radioactive materials created in the burning process can be deadly:

" ...
waste containing potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium -- impurities typically found in coal.

While the company (TVA) is downplaying the hazardous nature of the material, telling the New York Times that it's "inert" and "not toxic or anything," an assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the risk of getting cancer from coal ash lagoons is 10,000 times greater than safety standards allow."

Months of cleanup are ahead, and once the currently wet spill begins to dry, then the toxic materials turn into dust which is then transmitted by airflow.

Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, writes in a press release:

SACE believes that TVA, TDEC and the EPA should be erring on the side of caution and encouraging residents and others at the site to avoid bodily contact with the ash, which when dried can become airborne. Along with the lead and thallium officially found in the ash, there is a strong probability that levels of arsenic, cadmium and potentially mercury will be found.”

Dr. Smith continued by stressing that safety precautions should be taken by residents in the affected area.

“This is clearly one of the most severe environmental disasters of East Tennessee,” Smith said. “There are multiple pathways in which people can become potentially affected by these heavy metals, including bodily contact, drinking water, air pathways and aquatic wildlife and fish, and we feel that appropriate warnings should be expressed to ensure the safety of Tennessee residents.”

State bloggers, such as Enclave, have noted a massive absence of government response to this disaster:

The silence of Tennessee's elected officials indicates to me that TVA is actually in the cat bird's seat, and they are in little danger of being held accountable for these events. I fully expect Senators Corker and Alexander (as well as Governor Phil Bredesen) to get behind a new initiative under the pretense of clean-up to convert and to expand TVA's plant and political power in Roane County."

From Christian Grantham at Nashville Is Talking:

Actually, if you read some of the reports about the smaller coal waste spill in 2000, you'll see the damage spread over weeks through at least a hundred miles of tributaries and streams. TVA says it's taking precautions to prevent this from entering the Tennessee River, but anyone with a brain can see that short of building a dam, that will be impossible.

What it appears TVA is focusing more on (and you can see this in their own online accounts, news reports and releases) is clearing the way for more coal to reach the plant. The troubling fact that TVA is making a calculated decision to use their assets to clear the way for more coal rather than using 100% of their assets to prevent further ecological damage is noted."

From a recent Roane County newspaper report, the Kingston Plant has been slowly converting to a new process to 'scrub' waste emissions which will result in the creation of gypsum ponds, however:

We want to make it clear we’re spending $500 million to clean up the environment. It is not a bad thing, but it is clearly a visible thing,” TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said.
Officials had hoped to find a market, such as drywall, for the gypsum byproduct of the new scrubber. The slowing economy has ground those possibilities to a halt. “They (the marketplace) have more gypsum than they know what to do with,” said Martocci."

In another recent report from the Roane County News, business designed to create cleaner-burning fuel are just a losing proposition as oil prices - for the moment - have fallen:

The shuttering of Wright’s company, Blue Sky Biodiesel, won’t wreck the local economy. He had just three employees including himself, but the demise of the business has left him financially and emotionally scarred.
“I’m just kind of down in the dumps right now,” Wright said. “I tapped into my savings in order to make this work.
Wright said his business wasn’t just about profit.Wright said he felt like he was on the front lines of the much-touted fight to energy independence, whipping up batches of biodiesel for use in diesel engines.
“None of us are rich,” he said. “We were all just people with ideas trying to get things done.”

Seems the powers that be are slow to seek changes, and seek instead to continue to rely on the fictions of "clean coal technology" and unreal hopes that fossil fuel - regardless of economic costs and environmental destruction - is a magical creation which serves only to fulfill wishes and dreams.

NBC news did finally lead their nightly report from the scene in the Harriman community on Friday:


  1. Great post. I find it incredible that the TV news teams are downplaying this whole mess. Telling folks to go ahead & drink the (kool-aid?) water.. Sure, drink it & become a part in the statistics of cancer pockets in east TN.
    We will feel the impact of this disaster for at least a decade.

  2. Anonymous3:59 PM

    Tennessee has a very high mortality rate already. It is burdened with acid rain, which is killing the Smoky Mouuntain forests, run off from the Alcoa plant,and now this. Further the state houses at least four nuclear plants.
    Does any one care about the population of the State of Tennessee? Alcoa has made some inroads in controlling its toxic waste material. But it's not enough, is it? Is Tennessee the nation's black lung. Not very fair or responsible is it? There have to be some controls put into place to protect the population from short term and long term effects of unmanaged industrial toxic wastes. I think that the food supply as wel as the drinking water is compromised--not to mention the air we will be breathing.

  3. The coal ash disaster are still going on in some places.It does not lead any harm for the people but it is quite dangerous for the air quality.Precautions are going on for betterment of clean coal and air quality.