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Can America Clean Up from Its Worst Environmental Disaster? [Contains Photo Slideshow]

With the breaking of a coal waste dam in Tennessee, environmental and human health is threatened by millions of pounds of toxic chemicals.
 
 
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 Editor's Note: You can watch an incredible photo slideshow of the effects of the coal ash sludge spill at the bottom of this story.

Harriman, TN - On December 26, 2008, the Roane County Codes Enforcement Office condemned three homes along Swan Pond Circle Road in Harriman, Tennessee, four days after 5.4 million cubic yards, more than 1 billion gallons, of coal combustion waste (CCW) slurry surged, "like a tsunami" according to residents, into the confluence of the Emory and Clinch Rivers after breaking a 40-acre holding pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant.

The Schean family lake house, which they had spent that last 3.5 years restoring from a beaten up lakeside shack, was thrown off its foundation across the road thirty feet. Fifty-three-year-old James Schean was asleep in bed when the earthen retaining wall broke, sending a wave of coal sludge through his home; Schean escaped by kicking out the bedroom window and clambering out of the house, just as emergency personnel arrived at the scene. Neither his wife nor his daughter were in the house at the time.

DeAnna Copeland, a neighbor of the Scheans, expressed her dismay at the destruction of the Schean lake-house, "every waking moment they were working on that house." The Schean house, the bass boat and James' red pick up truck all lay under a dark grey sludge, which was punctuated with household items, toys, and clothing that had been expelled from the house.

Many of the residents of Harriman and the surrounding river-front properties and forested peninsulas say they moved here to live out the latter part of their lives in a beautiful river setting -- many "cashed in everything" to buy river-front homes, like the Copeland family. As one of the police officers at a checkpoint along Swan Pond Circle Road said, "Sunday night, people went to bed with lake-side property; when they woke up Monday morning, it was gone."

Chris Copeland was startled awake at 12:40 am Monday morning, December 22. Copeland got dressed and drove his car down to the shore and put his high beams on to see what was going on. "I could hear things breaking and popping -- at first I thought it was a storm...I could see what looked like ocean waves going over our cove, then trees and debris," Copeland recalled. "I thought that the Melton Hill Dam had collapsed." Copeland, a fire fighter at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, immediately called 911.

Copeland was up all night and "hasn't slept very well since," he admitted. Subsequently, his wife DeAnna and two young daughters, have gone to Florida to stay with relatives. Copeland said that he wanted to get his children away from the mess and he was not sure when they would come back.

This is not the first time that the coal ash containment ponds have breached at the Kingston Fossil plant. There have been two in recent years, one in 2003 and in 2006. Danny Collins, the manager of the Rockwood Municipal Airport, said that he'd noticed a green ooze coming from the retention wall of the waste pond for the last year and a half.

But this environmental disaster may be the worst in the country's history and the threats to health and the environment are severe, as the residents are beginning to learn. Clean up crews expressed their shock at the size and scope of the accident. "I ain't seen anything like this ever before," said one worker, who asked not to be identified by name because "TVA told us not to say anything. Fifteen years ago there was a tornado here -- it was nothing compared to this," he explained.