TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill

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This article is part of the Global Energy Monitor coverage of the Tennessee sludge spill
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TVA ash spill in Harriman, TN on December 25, 2008. Photo courtesy of United Mountain Defense.

On December 22, 2008, a retention pond wall collapsed at Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston plant in Harriman, Tennessee, releasing a combination of water and fly ash that flooded 12 homes, spilled into nearby Watts Bar Lake, contaminated the Emory River, and caused a train wreck. Officials said 4 to 6 feet of material escaped from the pond to cover an estimated 400 acres of adjacent land. A train bringing coal to the plant became stuck when it was unable to stop before reaching the flooded tracks.[1] Hundreds of fish were floating dead downstream from the plant.[2] Water tests showed elevated levels of lead and thallium.[3]

Originally TVA estimated that 1.7 million cubic yards of waste had burst through the storage facility. Company officials said the pond had contained a total of about 2.6 million cubic yards of sludge. However, the company revised its estimates on December 26, when it released an aerial survey showing that 5.4 million cubic yards (1.09 billion gallons) of fly ash was released from the storage facility.[2] Several days later, the estimate was increased to over 1 billion gallons spilled.[4] The size of the spill was larger than the amount TVA claimed to have been in the pond before the accident, a discrepancy that TVA was unable to explain.[5]

The TVA spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which released 10.9 million gallons of crude oil.[6] Cleanup was expected to take weeks and cost tens of millions of dollars.[7]

According to the TVA, rain totaling six inches in ten days[8] and 12°F temperatures were factors that contributed to the failure of the earthen embankment.[9]

The 40-acre pond was used to contain ash created by the coal-burning plant.[1] The water and ash that were released in the accident were filled with toxic substances. Each year coal preparation creates waste containing an estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, and 2754 tons of nickel, and 1098 tons of selenium.[10]

Health and Ecological Impacts from Kingston Coal Ash Spill Pollutants

The following table summarizes the impacts of pollutants released in the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill:[11]

Pollutant Human Health Impacts Ecological Impacts
Arsenic Human carinogen; also linked to cardiovascular and dermal effects, encephalopathy, and periperhal neuropathy Accumulates in freshwater plants and bivalves, where it enters the food supply.
Barium Can cause gastrointestinal disturbances and muscular weakness. Ingesting large amounts, dissolved in water, can change heart rhythm and can cause paralysis and possibly death. Affects development of geminating bacterial spores and has a variety of effects on microorganisms, including inhibition of cellular processes.
Chromium Chromium VI is a known human carcinogen; expusure has also caused stomach tumors in humans and animals. Can make fish more susceptible to infection and damage/accumulate in fish tissues and invertebrates such as snails and worms.
Copper High levels can cause harmful effects such as irritation of the nose , mouth and eyes; diarrhea; stomach cramps; nausea; and even death. Has adverse reproductive, biochemical, physiological, and behavioral effects on aquatic organisms.
Manganese Exposure to high levels can affect the the nervous system; very high levels may impair brain development in children. Nervous system and reproductive effects have been observed in animals after high oral doses.
Mercury High levels can permanently damage the brain and other organisms; can harm developing fetus, causing brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak. Easily absorbed through organic tissues and membranes; easily bioaccumulates and can concentrate as it progresses up food chains.
Nickel The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that some nickel compounds are carcinogenic to humans and that metallic nickel may possibly be carcinogenic to humans. Absorption into organisms\' organs and bodies can cause growth defects.
Vanadium Impacts from ingestion unclear; workers who breathed vanadium suffered lung irritation, coughing, wheezing, chest pain, runny nose, and sort throat. Animals that have ingested very large doses have died. High levels in the water of pregnant animals caused minor birth defects.
Zinc Ingesting large doses even for a short time can cause cramps, nausea, and vomiting; inhaling large mounts can cause a short-term disease called metal fume fever. High concentrations in water have been shown to exert adverse reproductive, biochemical, physiological, and behavioral effect5s on a variety of aquatic organisms.

Heavy metal releases in Kingston coal ash spill higher than initially reported

According to reports filed with the EPA by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the 2008 TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill resulted in a discharge of 140,000 pounds of arsenic into the Emory River -- more than twice the reported amount of arsenic discharged into U.S. waterways from all U.S. coal plants in 2007.[12]

According to the Environmental Integrity Project, "The new Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data submitted to the EPA by TVA also show that the Kingston ash spill deposited nearly 320 tons of vanadium in the Emory River, or more than seven times the total discharge of this toxic pollutant from all power plants in 2007. The Kingston facility singlehandedly discharged more than of chromium, lead, manganese, and nickel into the Emory River last year than reported discharges of those pollutants from the entire U.S. power industry in 2007. The EIP analysis of the new TVA data finds a total of 2.66 million pounds of 10 toxic pollutants – arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, vanadium and zinc. That compares to the much lower 2.04 million pounds of such discharges from all U.S. power plants into surface waters in 2007."[12]

TVA Reaction

TVA spokesman Gil Francis Jr. said that the TVA was "taking steps to stabilize runoff from this incident." In response to a video that showed dead fish on the Clinch River, which had received runoff from the spill, he stated "in terms of toxicity, until an analysis comes in, you can't call it toxic." He continued by saying that "it does have some heavy metals within it, but it's not toxic or anything."[13] Chandra Taylor, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called this statement irresponsible, and stated that coal fly ash contained concentrated amounts of mercury, arsenic, and benzene. She added, "These things are naturally occurring, but they concentrate in the burning process and the residual is more toxic than it starts."[14]

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency promised to put up barriers to stop the ash from reaching the Tennessee River, but by early on December 24, a flyover by The New York Times showed no evidence of any barriers having been erected.[13] Repair work was underway on the nearby railroad, which had been halted by the spill when 78,000 cubic yards of sludge covered tracks.[15][13] By the afternoon of that day, dump trucks were being used to deposit rock into the Clinch River to prevent the further downstream contamination.[16] By December 30, 2008, the TVA had announced it was requesting the assistance of the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the ash-filled Emory River to restore navigation.[17] On January 1, 2009 the TVA announced that rather than attempting to clear away all the slurry, they would instead spray seed, straw, and mulch on top of much of it "to combat dust and erosion."[18][19]

On December 27, 2008 the TVA issued a list of precautions to residents, but did not provide information about specific levels of toxic materials in the ash. Environmental groups expressed concern at the lack of specific information, given that the TVA had tested the material prior to the spill and thus should know what toxins it contained.[20] On December 28, the TVA released an inventory of the plant's byproducts, which included arsenic, lead, barium, chromium, and manganese.[21]

In response to independent attempts at sampling of the water quality and the taking of photos, the TVA illegally detained for approximately one hour two members of the Tennessee-based environmental organization United Mountain Defense, who were examining public land in the area of the spill and cited three other individuals, warning them that any attempt to enter the public waterway again would lead to prosecution.[22][23]

TVA president Tom D. Kilgore said that in light of the spill, the Authority would consider switching the Kingston plant over to "dry" byproduct methods, which would reduce the chances of another spill. Five TVA-operated plants use this method, while Kingston and another five use a "wet" process.[24] The power plant continues to operate, with waste being sent to one of the two remaining intact containment ponds.[25] After the accident, the TVA board did vote to replace its six ash ponds -- including the one at Kingston, three others in Tennessee, and one each in Kentucky and Alabama -- with dry storage, at a cost of $1.5 billion over 10 years.[26]

Kilgore is scheduled to testify before a U.S. Senate committee about the spill on January 7, 2009. According to findings by the Institute for Southern Studies, members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee accepted a total of $1,079,503 from the electric utilities industry in the 2008 elections.[27]

TVA likely to raise rates to cover unexpected expenses

In April 2009, TVA Chairman Bill Sansom said the company is facing "upward pressure" on its rates, stemming from several challenges, including the Kingston coal ash spill. TVA has already spent $68 million on cleanup, and it estimates the final cost could surpass $800 million, not including fines and lawsuits. The Associated Press reported on April 11 that TVA had already spent over $20 million purchasing 71 properties tainted by the coal-ash spill and is negotiating to buy more.[28][29]

Although falling fuel prices have enabled TVA to cut much of a 20 percent rate increase that took effect in October 2008, the company is considering another increase in October 2009 to mitigate these expenses. TVA will set its fiscal 2010 budget and rate changes in August.[29]

In September 2011, it was reported that TVA estimated the total cost of the cleanup will be $1.2 billion. The utility is self-funding, so ratepayers in the seven-state region are paying the tab with higher electric bills.[30]

Previous problems

Although the TVA cited substantial rainfall and cold temperatures as factors in the accident,[8][9] an inspection report in October 2008 had identified a "minor leak" in the faulty wall, but the report was not finalized.[13]

Local residents said that the spill was not a unique occurrence. The 1960s-era pond had been observed leaking and being repaired nearly every year since 2001.[25] A TVA news release confirmed that there had been two prior cases of seepage.[31]

TVA CEO Tom D. Kilgore told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that dikes holding millions of cubic yards of toxic coal ash mixed with water had allowed noticeable "seepage" in 2003 and 2005. Kilgore said that TVA had chosen to implement inexpensive patches instead of more extensive repairs of the holding ponds, admitting, "Obviously, that doesn’t look good for us."[32]

Legal actions

On December 23, 2008 the environmental group Greenpeace asked for a criminal investigation into the incident, focusing on whether the TVA could have prevented the spill.[33][34]

On December 30, 2008 a group of landowners filed suit against the TVA for $165 million in Tennessee state court.[35] Also on December 30, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy announced its intention to sue the TVA under the federal Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.[35]

On January 6, 2009, another lawsuit was announced by environmental groups. The pending lawsuit, brought by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, and Public Justice, accuses TVA of failing to safeguard the public and the environment against the massive coal ash spill.[36]

Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club on November 12, 2009 appealed a permit issued to TVA that would allow the company to dump unlimited amounts of additional pollutants into Tennessee's Clinch River. The groups filed their appeal before the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board. The action was in response to TVA's Kingston spill last year.[37]

In December 2009, hundreds of people filed lawsuits against TVA before the one-year deadline, adding to several hundred others who had already filed suit over the Kingston spill. More than 20 separate cases were filed on Tuesday, December 22. TVA has said it should be immune from the lawsuits, because it was providing a government service.[38]

January 2011: Judge opposes class action lawsuit against TVA

In January 2011, TVA won a court challenge against lawsuits from the utility's coal ash spill. A magistrate said no to plaintiff lawyers who asked to seek damages in a class action suit.

U.S. Magistrate Bruce Guyton recommended denying the class action status sought by attorneys for some of the 457 plaintiffs spread among about 50 current lawsuits, and for any others waiting to sue.

Since the spill the utility has negotiated buyouts of more than 170 properties and is continuing a cleanup that is projected to cost $1.2 billion.

"A class action is not superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating these cases," Guyton said in his recommendation.[39]

2011 Bench trial

On September 14, 2011, six claims covering hundreds of people regarding TVA liability went to bench trial before U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan, and is expected to last about two weeks. As a federal utility, TVA contends it is protected from some liability claims. It also maintains that under Tennessee law it has no legal duty to keep its reservoirs and shorelines safe for the plaintiffs' recreational use and enjoyment. TVA has said plaintiffs have not shown that coal ash particles were transmitted to their properties in "concentrations sufficient to cause property damage and/or personal injury or to constitute a taking."[40]

More than 40 other lawsuits are set for a Nov. 1, 2011 trial that will individually decide any damages.[40]

TVA engineer admits changing reports

During the first day of testimony in the federal trial, TVA engineer Chris Buttram, who inspected the Kingston Fossil Plant months before the December 2008 coal fly ash spill, said he changed the wording of his report at the suggestion of agency officials and removed some data from a groundwater monitoring program during the period of the spill because he said it was confusing the results.

Buttram said he completed his inspection report Feb. 12, 2009, nearly two months after the spill. The report mentioned several areas of erosion found along the dike of the dredge cell that collapsed and called for them to be repaired immediately. However, Buttram admitted he struck the word "immediately" from his final report at the suggestion of TVA's public relations staff. Buttram also admitted that he contacted Geosyntec Consultants Inc. for the password to get into a program the firm had set up for TVA to record the results of groundwater monitoring using piezometers and well points, and used the password to remove some data that was collected around the time of the ash spill.

Buttram said that when TVA hired engineering consultant William Walton to look into the ash spill, it told him he must not cast blame on any individual at TVA, but should look for a no-fault scenario to explain the disaster.[41]

TVA found liable

On August 23, 2012, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan ruled that “TVA is liable for the ultimate failure of North Dike which flowed, in part, from TVA’s negligent nondiscretionary conduct.” The litigation involves more than 60 cases and more than 800 plaintiffs, and will allow their claims of negligence, trespass, and private nuisance to move to Phase II proceedings, meaning each plaintiff must prove the elements of his or her respective negligence, trespass, and/or private nuisance claims by a preponderance of the evidence.[42]

Impoundment built with coal ash

On Sep. 28, 2011, dam construction expert B. Dan Marks testified in U.S. District Court that his review of Tennessee Valley Authority documents showed that Dike C, built in the 1950s, was supposed to have been built of compacted earth but also contained coal ash, which resulted in a weak, soft foundation that compounded problems as TVA built additional stages of the facility. Dike C was the original perimeter dike surrounding the whole ash impoundment area. Dike C was not the dike that failed Dec. 22, 2008, but it was a casualty of the failure of the northeast part of a dike behind it: as that dike disintegrated due to internal erosion, a tsunami of coal ash broke Dike C apart and pushed it aside, Marks said.

TVA already had experienced problems with ash ponds when a dike failure at its John Sevier power plant in 1973 released about 125,000 cubic yards of coal ash into the Cherokee Reservoir. Over the years, TVA built more dikes and coal ash impoundments at Kingston and tended to use compacted coal ash to do it, Marks said: "They were trying to build the dikes with coal ash because they were producing so much of it."[43]

Report identifies causes of spill

A report released in late June 2009 identified the main factors contributing to the massive Kingston coal ash spill. TVA hired engineering firm AECOM to analyze the underlying causes of the spill. According to the report, the underlying layer of the coal ash sludge was unstable and went undiscovered for decades by previous TVA stability analyses. The "creep failure" of this layer and liquefaction of the ash triggered the spill. The report also identified other factors including the construction of terraced retaining walls on top of the wet ash, which narrowed the area for storing the ash and in turn increased the pressure exerted by the rising stacks. Engineer Bill Walton said these factors created a "perfect storm" leading to the Kingston disaster. AECOM's report discounted heavy rains and seismic activity as contributing causes.[44][45]

Inspector General accuses TVA of deliberately influencing report

On July 28, 2009, TVA's Inspector General Richard Moore released a report concluding that the agency had improperly directed AECOM's investigation into the causes of the Kingston spill in order to protect itself from lawsuits. Moore criticized the decision to allow TVA's attorneys to hire the consultant and narrow the report in a way that "predetermined the choice that would be made between accountability and litigation strategy." As a result, the report overemphasized an underlying layer of slimy ash as the trigger for the collapse, an explanation Moore said was intended to reduce the legal culpability and liability of TVA management. According to Moore, "it appears TVA management made a conscious decision to present to the public only facts that supported an absence of liability for TVA for the Kingston spill." The report also revealed internal agency memos about warnings that could have prevented the spill, and suggested that other TVA sites may be at risk of similar collapses.[25]

September 2010: Inspector General says disaster due to TVA culture

In a Sep. 27, 2010 report, TVA's inspector general Richard Moore said poor coal ash control practices and the Tennessee Valley Authority management culture led to the huge December 2008 spill. The report on the inspector general's website describes the giant spill of coal sludge laden with selenium, mercury, and arsenic as "one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history." TVA said the description of the event as one of the largest disasters is "not supportable." Moore refused to change it.[46]

The report stated: "No analysis of TVA management challenges would be complete without recognizing that the Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill surfaced cultural problems within TVA that likely extend beyond the management of coal ash.... Culture is a reflection of a corporate mindset and part of the change that is occurring at TVA is a review of compliance processes along with education of TVA employees to alter the corporate mindset." TVA's challenge is to change the way its employees view environmental compliance issues, the inspector general concluded. The inspector general also said the coal ash contains elements "that can be toxic under certain circumstances" and that "although industry has claimed that fly ash is neither toxic nor poisonous, this is disputed," pointing to research by the National Academy of Sciences that described high levels of coal combustion contaminants as a possible reason for long-term human health and ecological concerns. The report also says that TVA—compared to other electric utilities—"fared poorly" for not reducing the number of transformers with large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that are regulated by the Toxic Substance Control Act.[46]

TVA issued a statement saying, "TVA will use the findings to improve our performance." The utility company is fighting damage lawsuits and has released reports that say there is no harm to public health from the disaster. TVA is paying penalties totaling $11.5 million, partly for oversight of the cleanup. Environmental groups have said they want TVA to be criminally prosecuted.[46]

TVA consultants criticize ash storage operations

Also in July 2009, consultants McKenna Long and Aldridge of Atlanta released a report commissioned by TVA following the massive Kingston spill. The report cited widespread problems with how the federal utility deals with its coal ash storage, saying that the controls, systems, and corporate culture required for proper management of the coal ash sties at its power plants were not in place. According to the consultants, TVA had no standard operating or maintenance procedures prior to the spill and neglected to provide annual training for its safety inspectors.[47]

TVA vows to revamp coal ash operations

TVA vowed to revamp its systems and culture in response to the two studies identifying weaknesses in its coal ash storage operations. The Authority's board called for a plan to correct the deficiencies at all TVA coal ash impoundments, including restructuring the utility's procedures, standards, controls, and accountability.[48] At a July 28 congressional hearing on the Kingston spill, CEO Tom Kilgore testified, "We have to change, and if that means heads have to roll and people have to leave, then so be it."[25]

No bonuses for TVA executives

At a meeting on November 19, 2009, TVA's top executives were told not to expect performance bonuses because of the massive Kingston spill and a drop in electricity sales related to the economic downturn. In addition, about 3,300 other managers and specialists will not receive pay raises in fiscal year 2010. President and CEO Tom D. Kilgore said, "It was a year overshadowed by Kingston and the economic downturn." Kilgore received over $1 million in bonuses for fiscal 2008, and nine executives who report to him received $1.2 million. TVA directors will extend Kilgore's $300,000 annual retention bonus for another four years, but without bonuses Kilgore's compensation, which includes a base salary of $875,000, is still about 45 percent below the average for top utility executives.[49]

Other TVA spills

Second sludge release in Tennessee

The weekend of January 3rd, 2009, less than two weeks after the catastrophe at Kingston Fossil Plant, a deliberate TVA sludge release occurred on the Ocoee River, which flows into the Hiwasee and then into the Tennessee Rivers. The spill, which contained heavy metals and other toxic substances, caused a fish kill and prompted an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. TVA workers had been draining a reservoir and repairing a dam when they released bottom sediment into the Ocoee. As of January 9, TVA had not commented on the situation.[50]

Coal waste spill in Alabama

On January 9, 2009, TVA confirmed another coal waste spill on the heels of its Kingston Fossil Plant disaster. The spill, which TVA said originated from a gypsum treatment operation, occurred at its Widows Creek coal-fired power plant in northeast Alabama. About 10,000 gallons of toxic gypsum material were released, some of which spilled into Widows Creek and the nearby Tennessee River.[51] U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who is a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, immediately called for a full review of all TVA's waste disposal sites.[52]

Fines and clean-up

June 2010: Tennessee assesses $11.5 million in fines

On June 14, 2010, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) officials assessed an $11.5 million penalty against TVA for violations of the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act and the Tennessee Solid Waste Disposal Act in the December 2008 coal ash spill. The fine is the largest ever imposed by the state's environmental regulators. According to the state order, the penalty is to be paid in stages, with $2.5 million due to TDEC by July 15, 2010. By the end of 2010, TVA must propose at least $2 million in projects to benefit the environment, subject to TDEC's approval. The company must then pay $2 million to TDEC by July 15, 2011, and another $2 million a year after that. TVA has already forked over $3 million to reimburse the department for its oversight costs, and it must continue to pay those costs over and above the total $11.5 million assessment. Federal fines are also a possibility.[53]

TVA, a federally owned but independently financed corporation created by congressional charter in 1933, had a net income in fiscal year 2009 of $726 million. It does not make a profit, instead reinvesting income in projects to improve and expand its infrastructure.[53]

July 2010: EPA Approves TVA Coal Ash Cleanup Plan

In early July 2010, the EPA approved the TVA's selected cleanup plan for the next phase of coal ash removal at the Kingston site in Roane County, Tennessee.[54]

The cleanup plan includes:[54]

  • Removing and consolidating approximately 2.5 million cubic yards of ash from the embayment, which will be consolidated on-site in the re-engineered TVA coal ash disposal area.
  • Building a protective perimeter dike by placing dry ash atop an engineered base layer of sand, gravel, and geofabric. A new dike will be installed around the perimeter of the coal ash disposal area to keep the ash from entering the embayment in the future. The coal ash area will incorporate measures to divert drainage and control runoff.
  • Closing the disposal area once all the ash has been put in place by putting a 2-foot clay cover and 1-foot of topsoil over it. Vegetation will then be planted to prevent erosion.
  • Restoring the ecosystem to native sediments following the removal of the ash.
  • The continued sampling drinking water, river water, and groundwater on a routine basis.

Continuing coal waste problems after spill

Water testing

Early tests by TVA and the EPA of water six miles upstream of the ash flow suggested that the public water supply met drinking water standards, despite elevated levels of lead and thallium found in river water near the spill.[55] John Moulton, a spokesman for the TVA, said that although the levels of these metals exceeded requirements for public drinking water, both metals were filtered out during water treatment processes.[55]

The first independent test results were released on January 1, 2008 and were conducted at Appalachian State University's Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry laboratories. The tests found significantly elevated levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium, in samples of slurry and river water.[56][55]

Waste water spreading

The winter of 2010 brought heavy rains to the region, causing waste water runoff from the landfill be be greater than expected. As a result 25 inches of rain caused 100,000 gallons of polluted water to be dealt with, likely causing pollution to spread to other locales. The TVA nor the companies hired to take the ash or environmental regulators have discussed these issues with the public.[57]

Kingston ranked 23rd on list of most polluting power plants in terms of coal waste

In January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies compiled a list of the 100 most polluting coal plants in the United States in terms of coal combustion waste (CCW) stored in surface impoundments like the one involved in the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill.[58] The data came from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2006, the most recent year available.[59]

Kingston Fossil Plant ranked number 23 on the list, with 1,738,437 pounds of coal combustion waste released to surface impoundments in 2006.[58]

Duke University scientists report high levels of arsenic

In November 2010 a study published by Duke University scientists in peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, documented contaminant levels in aquatic ecosystems over an 18-month period following the TVA coal ash spill in 2008.

By analyzing more than 220 water samples collected over the 18-month period, the Duke team found that high concentrations of arsenic from the TVA coal ash remained in the water trapped within river-bottom sediment — long after contaminant levels in surface waters dropped back below safe thresholds.

Samples extracted from 10 centimeters to half a meter below the surface of sediment in downstream rivers contained arsenic levels of up to 2,000 parts per billion — well above the EPA’s thresholds of 10 parts per billion for safe drinking water, and 150 parts per billion for protection of aquatic life.

The authors argued that these findings were evidence that coal ash waste ought to be designated a hazardous substance by the EPA. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.[60]

December 2010: TVA leak at Kingston plant

In December 2010, two years after the huge coal ash spill, environmental officials ordered a synthetic liner be installed in a leaky gypsum storage pond at the same Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee. TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the utility on Dec. 15 stopped a seepage of water from the Kingston Plant gypsum pond near the Clinch River. The seepage was discovered about a mile from the site of the Dec. 22, 2008 spill.[61]

Gypsum is a byproduct of an air scrubbing process when coal is burned. It is used to make products such as drywall. A TVA statement said the pond built in 2006 covers an area of about 50 acres and has a capacity to hold about 5.7 million cubic yards of gypsum, but has been used only a short time and contains about 22,000 cubic yards of gypsum. Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said that in addition to TVA interrupting use of the storage pond until it is fixed, the utility must provide a "detailed corrective action plan." She said the department gave TVA 30 working days to provide the plan.[61]

Study finds dangerous level of hexavalent chromium at TVA Johnsonville and Kingston coal waste sites

The study "EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash," released by EarthJustice and the Sierra Club in early February 2011, reported elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, a highly potent cancer-causing chemical, at several coal ash sites in Tennessee.[62] In all, the study cited 29 sites in 17 states where hexavalent chromium contamination was found. The information was gathered from existing EPA data on coal ash as well as from studies by EarthJustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club.[63][64][65][66] It included locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virgina and Wisconsin.[62]

According to the report, hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) was found at elevated levels at the following sites:[62]

  • TVA's Johnsonville Fossil Plant unlined coal ash pond at 620 ppb (parts per billion) - 31,000 times the proposed California drinking water goals and 6.2 times above the federal drinking water standard.
  • TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant's unlined coal waste pond at 100 ppb (parts per billion) - 5,000 times the proposed California drinking water goals and above the federal drinking water standard.

A press release about the report read:

Hexavalent chromium first made headlines after Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric because of poisoned drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Now new information indicates that the chemical has readily leaked from coal ash sites across the U.S. This is likely the tip of the iceberg because most coal ash dump sites are not adequately monitored.[67]

According to the report, the electric power industry is the leading source of chromium and chromium compounds released into the environment, representing 24 percent of releases by all industries in 2009.[62]

TVA shipping coal ash from Tennessee disaster to Georgia and Alabama

In a test case, some of the coal ash waste that spilled in TVA's Kingston plant disaster is being sent to Georgia and Alabama. TVA is loading it onto rail cars, where the company says it will be safely contained.[68]

In Georgia, the coal waste is being shipped to the Veolia landfill in Taylor Count, about 100 miles south of Atlanta. Local residents have dubbed the dump site "Trash Mountain." Sierra Club representative Mark Woodall said the landfill is poorly suited to coal ash storage, because it is "located in a groundwater recharge area, and it's a danger to our groundwater resources in Georgia."[68] In Alabama, a landfill in Perry County in the west central part of the state is also receiving ash shipments.[58]

The ash will be transported from Tennessee to the out-of-state landfills through May 15, 2009. State and federal officials will evaluate whether the tests are successful, and if so whether to bring in more of the TVA coal waste.[68] Just days after news of the test shipments were announced, EPA decided to take over cleanup of the spill. The agreement between EPA and TVA, which was executed under the Superfund law, has EPA overseeing the cleanup and TVA reimbursing EPA for its oversight costs.[69]

Landfill selections raise environmental justice concerns

Both the Georgia and Alabama landfills are located in areas with higher rates of poverty and higher percentages of African-American residents than state averages, a situation that has raised concerns about environmental justice. In Taylor County, more than 24 percent of the population lives in poverty, and over 40 percent of the population is African-American; by contrast, the state as a whole has a 14 percent poverty rate and is 30 percent African-American. Perry County in Alabama has more than 32 percent of its residents living in poverty and a 69 percent African-American population, compared with the state as a whole, which has a poverty rate of over 16 percent and a 26 percent African-American population.[58] Perry County District Attorney Michael Jackson criticized the EPA for allowing TVA to dispose of ash at a landfill in a poor community in Alabama, calling the decision "tragic and shortsighted." He vowed to monitor the disposal site to ensure the process complies with environmental regulations.[70]

Reports show that TVA also considered moving the coal ash to two communities in eastern Tennessee, both of which have populations of well over 90 percent white residents and poverty rates of under 21 percent. The two Tennessee sites considered were Athens in McMinn County and Oneida in Scott County. However, the company sought approval from state regulators solely for the sites in Georgia and Alabama. The communities that are receiving the coal waste from TVA were not provided an opportunity for public comment on the decision.[58]

On January 3, 2012, a civil rights complaint was filed against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management for permitting a landfill to take coal ash from the Kingston disaster to the Arrowhead Landfill in rural Perry County, Alabama. The complaint charges ADEM with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funds. The complaint asks EPA's Office of Civil Rights to investigate whether ADEM violated Title VI. If it did, and if it is unable to come up with a less discriminatory alternative, the complaint asks EPA to suspend ADEM's funding.[71] In June 2012, the EPA's Office of Civil Rights agreed to investigate a complaint over the permit issued to operators of the Arrowhead landfill in 2011.[72]

Similar ash ponds across the United States

A 2009 study by The New York Times following the TVA spill found that there are more than 1,300 similar coal ash ponds across the U.S., each of which can reach up to 1,500 acres. These dumps contain billions of gallons of fly ash and other coal waste containing toxic heavy metals, yet they are not subject to federal regulation, and there is little monitoring of their impacts on the local environment.[73]

Other coal waste sites

To see a nationwide list of over 350 coal waste sites in the United States, click here. To see a listing of coal waste sites in a particular state, click on the map:

<us_map redirect=":Category:Existing coal waste sites in {state}"></us_map>



  1. 1.0 1.1 Chloe White, "Dike bursts, floods 12 homes, spills into Watts Bar Lake," Knoxville News Sentinel, December 22, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Ash spill: TVA triples amount of sludge released," Knoxville News Sentinel, December 26, 2008.
  3. "Lead and thallium taint water near TVA pond breach," Knoxville News Sentinel, December 26, 2008.
  4. "Tennessee sludge spill estimate grows to 1 billion gallons," CNN, December 26, 2008.
  5. "Tennessee Ash Flood Larger Than Initial Estimate," New York Times, December 26, 2008.
  6. "Exxon Valdez oil spill," Encyclopedia of the Earth, access 12/08
  7. Rebecca Ferrar, "The cleanup: Weeks, millions needed to fix impact from TVA pond breach," Knoxville News Sentinel, December 27, 2008.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Valley Precipitation, TVA website, accessed December 28, 2008.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Kristin M. Hall, "Group: Stronger warnings needed in Tenn. ash spill", Associated Press, December 28, 2008.
  10. Coal waste
  11. Ash Spill 2009128.pdf Comparison of 2008 Kingston Coal Ash Discharges to 2007 Industry Discharges, Environmental Integrity Project fact sheet, December 8, 2009
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Shaila Dewan, "Water Supplies Tested After Tennessee Spill," New York Times, December 23, 2008.
  14. "Tennessee sludge spill runs over homes, water," CNN, December 22, 2008.
  15. "Ash spill: TVA triples amount of sludge released," Knoxville News Sentinel, December 26, 2008.
  16. "Massive coal-ash spill causes river of sludge and controversy," Seattle Times, December 25, 2008.
  17. Dave Flessner, "Tennessee: Corps to dredge river around Kingston plant," The Chattanooga Times Free Press, December 30, 2008.
  18. Jim Balloch, "TVA to spread seed and straw at Kingston spill site," Knoxville News Sentinel, January 1, 2009.
  19. "Tennessee sludge contains elevated levels of arsenic," CNN, January 2, 2009.
  20. Anne Paine, "Coal ash precautions issued around spill," The Tennesseean, December 28, 2008.
  21. Shaila Dewan, "At Plant in Coal Ash Spill, Toxic Deposits by the Ton," New York Times, December 29, 2008.
  22. "Environmentalists Detained for Photographing Tennessee Ash Spill," Softpedia, December 29, 2008.
  23. Karen Harper, "2 activists arrested for taking photos of TVA toxic coal ash spill," Birmingham Progressive Politics Examiner, December 28, 2008.
  24. Duncan Mansfield, "Cleanup begins in wake of Tennessee ash pond flood," Associated Press, December 24, 2008.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Anne Paine and Colby Sledge, "Flood of sludge breaks TVA dike", The Tennessean, December 23, 2008. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "tenn" defined multiple times with different content
  26. "Coal-Ash Disaster Lingers in Tennessee as Regulation Fight Rages" Bloomberg, November 3, 2011.
  27. Sue Sturgis, "Toxic Influence: Coal ash-tainted money funds senators holding TVA disaster hearing," Institute for Southern Studies, January 7, 2009.
  28. "Utility Rejects Many Requests as It Buys Land Tainted by Tennessee Coal-Ash Spill," Associated Press, April 11, 2009.
  29. 29.0 29.1 "TVA sees growing 'pressure' for higher rates," Associated Press, April 4, 2009.
  30. Bill Poovey, "Trial starts on damage lawsuits in TVA ash spill" BusinessWeek, Sep. 15, 2011.
  31. Stoney Sharp, "TVA: Structure had smaller failures before", WBIR-TV, December 23, 2008
  32. John M. Broder, "Plant That Spilled Coal Ash Had Earlier Leak Problems," New York Times, January 9, 2009.
  33. Greenpeace calls for criminal investigation into coal ash spill, Greenpeace, December 23, 2008.
  34. Kristin M. Hall, "Utility doubles estimate of Tennessee ash deluge," Associated Press, December 26, 2008.
  35. 35.0 35.1 "Landowners sue TVA for $165M over coal ash spill," Associated Press, December 30, 2008.
  36. Daniel Cusick, "New lawsuit announced over Tenn. ash spill," E&E News, January 6, 2009.
  37. Siobhan Hughes, "Environmentalists Challenge TVA Over Wastewater Permit ," Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2009.
  38. "Hundreds Beat Deadline for TVA Spill Lawsuits," Clean Skies, December 23, 2009.
  39. "Judge opposes class action in TVA coal ash suits" Associated Press, January 20, 2011.
  40. 40.0 40.1 Bill Poovey, "Trial starts on damage lawsuits in TVA ash spill" BusinessWeek, Sep. 15, 2011.
  41. Ed Marcum,"TVA engineer admits changing reports" KnoxNews, Sep. 19, 2011.
  42. "Federal ruling: TVA liable for coal ash spill," AP, August 23, 2012.
  43. Ed Marcum, "Expert says TVA coal ash dike not built as planned" Knox News, Sep. 28, 2011.
  44. Scott Barker, "Report: Four factors led to fly ash spill," Knoxville News Sentinel, June 26, 2009.
  45. "Fly ash pond too high, filled too fast," WBIR, June 25, 2009.
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 "TVA Inspector: Poor Management Led to Ash Spill" Wall Street Journal, Sep. 27, 2010.
  47. Duncan Mansfield, "TVA consultants criticize coal ash operations," Associated Press, July 21, 2009.
  48. "TVA vows revamp after coal ash spill," UPI, July 22, 2009.
  49. "Economy, ash spill mean no TVA executive bonuses," Associated Press, November 19, 2009.
  50. "TVA sludge release kills Ocoee River fish," Chattanooga Times, January 9, 2009.
  51. Bruce Nilles, "Coal Waste Spills by the Dozen?," Daily Kos, January 9, 2009.
  52. "'Bama spill: Boxer calls for review of TVA waste sites," Associated Press, January 9, 2009.
  53. 53.0 53.1 Sue Sturgis, "Tennessee fines TVA $11.5 million for coal ash spill, but is it enough?" Facing South, June 16, 2010.
  54. 54.0 54.1 "EPA Approves Coal Ash Cleanup Plan" Enviro, July 3, 2010.
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 Shaila Dewan, "Metal Levels Found High in Tributary After Spill," New York Times, January 1, 2009.
  56. "Preliminary independent tests find high levels of toxic chemicals in Harriman TN fly ash deposits," Appalachian Voices, January 1, 2009.
  57. "Spilled coal ash problem spreading" March 6, 2010
  58. 58.0 58.1 58.2 58.3 58.4 Sue Sturgis, "Coal's ticking timebomb: Could disaster strike a coal ash dump near you?," Institute for Southern Studies, January 4, 2009. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "iss" defined multiple times with different content
  59. TRI Explorer, EPA, accessed January 2009.
  60. "Duke scientists look deeper for coal ash hazards" Science Blog, November 29, 2010.
  61. 61.0 61.1 "TVA plant must replace liner at leaky gypsum pond" Bloomberg, Dec. 21, 2010.
  62. 62.0 62.1 62.2 62.3 "EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash" Earthjustice & Sierra Club, February 1, 2011.
  63. "Damage Case Report for Coal Combustion Wastes," August 2008
  64. U.S. EPA Proposed Coal Ash Rule, 75 Fed. Reg. 35128
  65. EarthJustice, Environmental Integrity Project, and Sierra Club, "In Harm's Way: Lack of Federal Coal Ash Regulations Endangers Americans and their Environment," August 2010
  66. EarthJustice and Environmental Integrity Project, "Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites," May 2010
  67. "Coal ash waste tied to cancer-causing chemicals in water supplies" Alicia Bayer,, February 1, 2011.
  68. 68.0 68.1 68.2 Jim Burress, "Coal Ash from Tennessee Disaster Making its Way to Georgia Landfill," WABE, May 8, 2009.
  69. "EPA to Oversee Cleanup of TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant Release," Environmental Protection Agency, May 11, 2009.
  70. "Alabama DA reviewing options on coal ash decision," WTVM, July 7, 2009.
  71. Sue Sturgis, "Alabama faces civil rights complaint over landfill taking waste from TVA coal ash disaster" Facing South, January 5, 2012.
  72. Tom Zeller Jr., "Alabama's Arrowhead Landfill Investigated By EPA For Civil Rights Violations," HuffPo, June 19, 2012.
  73. Shaila Dewan, "Hundreds of Coal Ash Dumps Lack Regulation," New York Times, January 7, 2009.

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Wikipedia also has an article on TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill. This article may use content from the Wikipedia article under the terms of the GFDL.