TVA to Begin Coal Ash Spill Cleanup March 20

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A view of the TVA coal fired power plant at Kingston Tennessee across the Emory River. That is not a natural island in the river. It is an island of toxic coal ash.

by Glynn Wilson

KINGSTON, Tenn. — Steve Scarborough came to East Tennessee from Georgia for the scenic boating and stayed to raise a family and start his own canoe building company, Dagger Kayaks and Canoes. But on Dec. 22, the longest night of 2008, his world was turned upside down when an embankment wall caved at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal fired power plant here, causing the largest environmental disaster of its kind in U.S. history.

Heavy rains, freezing temperatures, and potentially a minor earthquake a few days before, caused the holding pond for TVA’s coal ash waste to fail, dumping 2.6 million cubic yards of the mildly toxic material into the middle of the scenic Emory River.

Tests of the river water around the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders. But levels of toxicity are not that dangerous and not the main issue, Scarborough said. The event was not just a spill of a hazardous substance, like many environmental disasters in the past, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

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Glynn Wilson
Steve Scarborough of Kingston, Tennessee, talks about the devastation from the TVA coal ash spill in the land he loves.

This was not just a spill, but a major man-made disaster and a significant geological event. The mountain of ash completely filled up the main channel of the river for six miles, creating a biological dessert for perhaps 30 miles and disrupting the life of the river indefinitely.

It flooded pastures and destroyed homes, and it will take millions of dollars and many years for the river to be restored to anything like its native beauty and biological diversity.

“There are no excuses for this,” Scarborough said.

Coal ash from the nation’s coal-fired power plants is not a regulated substance, and TVA had no contingency plan in case of a spill.

While Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen has issued an emergency order for TVA to begin cleaning up the area, some critics, including state Representative Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, have said the state Department of Environment and Conservation is holding up a permit to begin work.

Not true, said Scarborough, who is a member of the conservation board for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. A phone call confirmed that work is scheduled to begin on March 20. The problem is finding and preparing a new site to dump the ash and letting contracts for workers and heavy equipment to be brought in to begin a massive clean up that could take five years or more.

TVA has already spent millions of dollars to hire heavy equipment operators to dig a channel through the new land mass and allow some of the river to flow down stream, where the floating cenospheres are being caught by boom skimmers. An underwater dam called a weir is being constructed to keep settled ash from moving downstream, although the ash has already created a blanket covering the bottom of the river for miles.

Since the ash was stored wet, when it hit the river it spread out like cream spreads out when you pour it into coffee, Scarborough said.

While only few houses were totally devastated by the ash, the property values in the area have plummeted in an already depressed housing market caused by the mortgage meltdown. Scarborough owns about 150 acres in the area. Now it is not worth anything near what he paid for it, although he’s one of the lucky ones. While some families already had their waterfront homes for sale to pay for their kids’ college educations, he is well off enough not to be totally devastated by the drop in property values.

Yet the aesthetic and psychological damage is still evident in his face as he talks about the disaster.

When people see the devastation caused by the massive geological event, on top of all the other problems caused by burning coal for electricity, he said, it should burn into people’s minds that there is “no such thing as ‘clean coal’.”

“One of the dumbest thing humans do,” he said, “is dig coal out of the ground and burn it.”

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Glynn Wilson
A close up of the coal ash mess…
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Glynn Wilson
A six mile long land mass of coal ash where the most vibrant and biologically diverse stretch of the Emory River used to be.

Video of the coal ash spill area and interview with Steve Scarborough

Other Relevant Links After the Jump


For the long version of the video, go to this Google video link.

Tennessee State Representative Frank Nicely says earthquake caused coal ash pond embankment wall to cave, and alleges, wrongly, that the state Department of Environment and Conservation is holding up the cleanup effort by not granting a permit for work to begin.

Video Link

The Environment Is Our Business

© 2009 – 2010, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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