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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.

Residents in the affected area expressed frustration at TVA's response to citizens. DeAnna Copeland likened it to going to the emergency room for care and being put in a waiting room. "First they send the receptionist to check on you; next they send the candy striper. We need the doctor!"

In the wake of the spill, Kingston City Councilman Brant Williams called an emergency community meeting to be held at the Kingston Community Center, on Sunday, December 28. Five of the seven council members attended along with the Mayor Troy Beets, who also heads the City council, Tom Kilgore, CEO of TVA and Ron Hall, the Kingston plant manager.

According to Kilgore, 3 homes have been condemned, 42 homes were damaged in some way; at least 63 pieces of equipment are currently engaged in clean up efforts, "24-7." One by one, citizens raised their hands to make comments and ask questions. Mayor Beets handed each person a microphone, which usually ended up back in the hands of TVA CEO Tom Kilgore, who answered questions for hours.

Considering the magnitude of the spill, citizens were almost eerily polite; there was much talk of "not wanting to bash TVA." Some residents affected by the coal sludge spill expressed concern that if they spoke out against TVA that family members who did business with the company could lose their jobs.

Citizens listened to Kilgore enumerate the TVA plan of action: first to ensure public safety, second, to contain the spill, and third, the recovery stage. Kilgore repeatedly described planned efforts to monitor the water, air and soil around the spill but never explained to the approximately 300 people why these precautions were being taken.

He addressed the safety of clean up crews and admitted that he pulled them off task when rains came over the weekend after the spill, "you can imagine that it is kind of dangerous working with this stuff," he said. However, when a citizen later quoted back his statement and questioned health and safety issues, Kilgore said that he was describing the slickness endangering the workers, not the actual content of the spilled waste.

But there may be good reason for alarm. Activists representing United Mountain Defense, River Keepers and Citizen Coal Council distributed information about coal ash and its dangers at the meeting. Stephen Smith of CleanEnergy.org demanded that Kilgore tell the crowd what is in the coal ash. Kilgore refused to answer saying only that, "we are concentrating our efforts on clean up."

Chris Irwin, with United Mountain Defense, spoke to the crowd warning them that this community meeting was "nothing more than a public relations snow job." As reported in the New York Times, December 30, TVA finally revealed an inventory of the Kingston Fossil Plant waste generation in detail : "In just one year, the plant's byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems. And the holding pond ... contained many decades' worth of these deposits."

Subsequently, independent tests of the water quality at the spill site and downstream, in coordination with Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance's Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Program, were conducted and analyzed this week. The results are frightening. Tests were conducted at the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry labs at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. At the Kingston plant's canal intake, the tests revealed arsenic levels 300 times what federal laws allow; all samples contained "elevated levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury , nickel and thallium," according to Appalachian Voices' website.

Dr. Shea Tuberty, Associate Professor of Biology, one of the scientists conducting the tests concluded, "The ecosystems around Kingston and Harriman are going to be in trouble, the aquatic ones for some time, until nature is able to bury these compounds in the environment," said Tuberty. "I don't know how long that will take, maybe generations."

The coal disaster at Kingston has clued Americans in to the real consequences of coal. We use coal-fired power for almost half of our daily electricity use; when you turn on your lights, your plasma TV or laptop computer, you are probably using coal. The coal industry, which has come under sustained attack, especially in the wake of global climate change, is spending tens of millions of dollars on a public relations war to convince Americans that coal is good and clean.

But many residents of Appalachia who live with the daily effects are strenuously opposed. Long before this latest disaster, citizens in the Coal River valley in southern West Virginia have pointed to the threats of massive sludge ponds in their neighborhood: Brushy Fork, which contains 9 billion gallons of sludge and the 2.8 billion gallons that sit above Marsh Fork Elementary School, which according to reports written between 1998 and 2005 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is at risk for failure which could fatally impact 1,000 people downstream. From the Coal River Valley -- and across the nation -- the people cry for Marsh Fork Elementary to be moved away from the toxic waste dump which has accrued hundreds of repeated violations. But West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, III has refused this community's requests. Massey Energy, which runs the operation, assures West Virginians that their dam is safe and inspected regularly. But that is also what TVA assured the people of Kingston.

Clearly corporate responsibility is an issue when it comes to the threats posed by coal. In the case of Kingston, environmental organizations like Greenpeace are calling for criminal charges against TVA. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is planning to sue TVA under the Federal Clean Water Act. Additionally, Roane County land developers are suing TVA for $165 million. And many are hoping that the Kingston spill will be the impetus to help Americans commit to the immediate transition away from coal to clean, renewable energy.

 

 

Antrim Caskey is a Brooklyn-based independent photojournalist whose work focuses on community and social justice issues. Caskey has been reporting on the human and environmental costs of Mountaintop Removal/Valley Fill coal mining since May, 2005.