Christmas coal ash disaster probably "worst ever" in US historyPublished by MAC on 2008-12-30
An Xmas 2008 waste "spill" at a coal ash dam in Tennessee is probably the worst of its kind in US history.
The operating utility, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), has sought to play down the environmental and health dangers resulting from 300 million gallons of sludge and water cascading onto nearby land and into waterways.
But, as pointed out by the New York Times, coal ash - especially that deriving from Appalachian coal - contains numerous potentially deadly metals, including arsenic, chromium, lead and nickel.
Coal Ash Spill Revives Issue of Its Hazards
By SHAILA DEWAN
New York Times
24th December 2008
KINGSTON, Tenn. What may be the nation's largest spill of coal ash lay thick and largely untouched over hundreds of acres of land and waterways Wednesday after a dam broke this week, as officials and environmentalists argued over its potential toxicity.
Construction crews worked under lights Tuesday night to clear mud and fly ash from Swan Pond Road and the railroad tracks leading to the T.V.A. power plant in Kingston, Tenn.
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.
The spill took place at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority generating plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville on the banks of the Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River, and then the Tennessee River just downstream.
Holly Schean, a waitress whose home, which she shared with her parents, was swept off its foundation when millions of cubic yards of ash breached a retaining wall early Monday morning, said, "They're giving their apologies, which don't mean very much."
The T.V.A., Ms. Schean said, has not yet declared the house uninhabitable. But, she said: "I don't need your apologies. I need information."
Even as the authority played down the risks, the spill reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material. Similar ponds and mounds of ash exist at hundreds of coal plants around the nation.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxic substances. "Most of that material is inert,"" said 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.
A morning flight over the disaster area showed some cleanup activity along a road and the railroad tracks that take coal to the facility, both heaped in sludge, but no evidence of promised skimmers or barricades on the water to prevent the ash from sliding downstream. The breach occurred when an earthen dike, the only thing separating millions of cubic yards of ash from the river, gave way, releasing a glossy sea of muck, four to six feet thick, dotted with icebergs of ash across the landscape. Where the Clinch River joined the Tennessee, a clear demarcation was visible between the soiled waters of the former and the clear brown broth of the latter.
By afternoon, dump trucks were depositing rock into the river in a race to blockade it before an impending rainstorm washed more ash downstream.
The spill, which released about 300 million gallons of sludge and water, is far larger than the other two similar disasters, said Jeffrey Stant, the director of the Coal Combustion Waste Initiative for the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental legal group, who has written on the subject for the E.P.A. One spill in 1967 on the Clinch River in Virginia released about 130 million gallons, and the other in 2005 in Northampton County, Pa., released about 100 million gallons into the Delaware River.
The contents of coal ash can vary widely depending on the source, but one study found that the mean concentrations of lead, chromium, nickel and arsenic are three to five times higher in the Appalachian coal that is mined near Kingston than in Rocky Mountain or Northern Plains coal.
Stephen A. Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said it was "mind-boggling" that officials had not warned nearby residents of the dangers.
"The fact that they have not warned people, I think, is disastrous and potentially harmful to the residents," Mr. Smith said. "There are people walking around, checking it out."
He and other environmentalists warned that another danger would arise when the muck dried out and became airborne and breathable.
Despite numerous reports from recreational anglers and television news video of a large fish kill downstream of the spill, Mr. Francis said the T.V.A.'s environmental team had not encountered any dead fish. On Swan Pond Road, home to the residences nearest the plant, a group of environmental advocates went door to door telling residents that boiling their water, as officials had suggested, would not remove heavy metals.
Environmentalists pointed to the accident as proof of their long-held assertion that there is no such thing as "clean coal," noting two factors that may have contributed to the scale of the disaster. First, as coal plants have gotten better at controlling air pollution, the toxic substances that would have been spewed into the air have been shifted to solid byproducts like fly ash, and the production of such postcombustion waste, as it is called, has increased sharply.
Second, the Kingston plant, surrounded by residential tracts, had little room to grow and simply piled its ash higher and higher, though officials said the pond whose wall gave way was not over capacity.
Environmental groups have long pressed for coal ash to be buried in lined landfills to prevent the leaching of metals into the soil and groundwater, a recommendation borne out by the 2006 E.P.A. report. An above-ground embankment like the one at Kingston was not an appropriate storage site for fly ash, said Thomas J. FitzGerald, the director of nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council and an expert in coal waste.
"I find it difficult to comprehend that the State of Tennessee would have approved that as a permanent disposal site," Mr. FitzGerald said.
The T.V.A. will find an alternative place to dispose of the fly ash in the future, Mr. Francis said. He said that at least 30 pieces of heavy machinery had been put in use to begin the cleanup of the estimated 1.7 million cubic yards of ash that spilled from the 80-acre pond, and that work would continue day and night, even on Christmas. The plant, which generates enough electricity to support 670,000 homes, is still functioning, but might run out of coal before the railroad tracks are cleared.
About 15 houses were affected by the flood, Mr. Francis said, and three would likely be declared uninhabitable. "We're going to make it right," he said. "We're going to restore these folks to where they were prior to this incident."
A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, Laura Niles, said the agency was overseeing the cleanup and would decide whether to declare Kingston a Superfund site when the extent of the contamination was known.
United States coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year, the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste. That is enough to fill more than a million railroad coal cars, according to the National Research Council.
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. Maryland fined the company $1 million in 2007.
As it grew dark in Kingston, a hard rain enveloped Roane County, rendering the twin smokestacks of the steam plant, as locals refer to it, barely visible amid the dingy clouds.
Angela Spurgeon, a teacher and mother of two whose dock was smothered in the ash-slide, said she was worried about the health effects, saying that on the night of the accident everyone was covered in sludge.
"The breathing is what concerns me, the lung issues," Ms. Spurgeon said. "Who knows what's in that water?"
Felicity Barringer and Robbie Brown contributed reporting.