Updated below ( 12/24/2008 )

Here are just some of the reports coming out of Harriman, Tennessee:

“Millions of yards of ashy sludge broke through a dike at the TVA’s (Tennessee Valley Authority) Kingston coal-fired plant, covering hundreds of acres, knocking one home off its foundation, and putting environmentalists on edge about toxic chemicals that might be seeping into the ground and flowing downriver.  One neighborhing family said the disaster was no surprise because they have watched the 1960’s era ash pond’s mini-blowouts off-and-on for years.”  [The Tennesseean, here]

Jim Bruggers at the Louisville-Courier Journal reminds us of the October 2000 coal-slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky which involved 300 millions gallons, and “now widely called the worst environmental disaster in southeastern United States history. Much of the national media paid little attention, though, because, it seems, it was located in Appalachia.”  He adds:

“Now, for some scale: This [Tennessee disaster] equates to 525 million gallons of ash sludge, according to the convertworld.com website.   The Exxon Valdez spill of 20 years ago…was about 11 million gallons of crude.”

Anne Paine and Colby Sledge writing for The Tennesseean report:

“About 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry—enough to fill 798 Olympic size swimming pools—rolled out of the pond Monday, according to the U.S. EPA.  …The ash slide, which began just before 1:00 am, covered as many as 400 acres as deep as 6 feet.”

“Neighbors Don and Jil Smith, who have lived near the pond for eight years, said that nearly every year TVA has cleaned up what they termed ‘baby blowouts.’  Ashen liquid similar to that seen on a much larger scale in Monday’s disaster came form the dike, they said. ‘It would start gushing this gray ooze…  They’d work on it for weeks and weeks.  They can say this is a one-time thing, but I don’t think people are going to believe them.'”

A 333-page report prepared for the U.S. EPA in 2007 attempt to estimate the human health and ecological effects of coal ash.  A review of the report by EarthJustice noted:

“…coal ash disposal sites release toxic chemicals and metals such as arsenic, lead, boron, selenium, cadmium, thallium, and other pollutants at levels that pose risks to human health and the environment.  [We and other national and local environmental and public health organizations have long called for regulations that protect against the toxic ash produced by coal-fired power plants.  Instead, a common industry practice is to mix the pollutant-laden ash with water and dump the toxic brew into unlined or inadequately lined ponds, allowing pollutants to poison groundwater supplies.”  (See EarthJustice news release: “Coal Ash Pollution Contaminants Ground Water” )

A June 10, 2008 hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the House Committee on Natural Resources included testimony from Professor Thomas Burke of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who said:

Management of coal combustion waste is a national issue that affects communities around the country where disposal sites are located.  Not far from here in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, coal combustion waste has been disposed of in a sand and gravel pit.  The country health department has sampled the drinking water wells of nearby residents finding concentrations of aluminum, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, lead, maganese, and thallium at levels above primary and secondary drinking water standards in some wells.  It appears that coal waste buried in the former sand and gravel pit is leaching into groundwater.

In contrast, the trade association representing coal combustion waste products —Yep! they have their own trade association—said that the Maryland example offered by Prof. Burkes was an isolated case.  I doubt it, but David Goss, Executive Director of the American Coal Ash Association reminds us that we (users of coal) generate this waste, and lots of it.  In his testimony at the same hearing he said:

“Annually, more than 125 million tons of coal-combustion products (CCP) are produced and more than 54 million tons (or 43%) are used beneficially.  These beneficial uses include: raw feedstock for portland cement production, as mineral filler in asphalt, as aggregate in road construction, for soil modification and stabilization, for wallboard panel products, in agriculture, in coal mine reclamation and many other commonly accepted uses.”

Well people, if we continue to use coal for 50% of our electricity generation, we better find something to do with the waste.  Keeping it in the circa 1960’s sludge impoundments, like the one that rupture in Harriman, TN, is not a wise idea and not sustainable.

 A post at Scholars and Rouges called “‘Clean’ coal ash flood may make new Superfund site” provides additional links to information on this environmental disaster in Tennessee.

Updated 12/24/2008:  Anne Paine and Colby Sledge with the Tennesseean continue to follow the story, reporting that officials from U.S. EPA and TVA are collecting samples of the coal-ash mess that covers up to 400 acres.   Local fisherman Jody Miles says:

“‘It doesn’t look healthy to me,’ examing a thin layer clouding the top of his favorite fishing spot on the Clinch River. ‘Do you reckon they can bring all this life back that’s going to die from all this mess?'”