The Human Impact: What TVA Isn't Saying about the Coal Spill Disaster
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As a result of a 1.1 billion gallon spill of contaminated fly ash, there has been discussion, press reportage and blogging about the environmental disaster in eastern Tennessee. Most of us have seen the pictures -- a 300+ acre area strewn with black and brown muck as far as the eye can see. Houses lifted off their foundations and thrown across the road, yards filled so high with ash that people can't leave their homes without stepping in it, roadways littered with the ash from trucks going to and from the site, and an eerie still where active life once existed. While this story continues to unfold -- as more samples are taken that delineate the true toxicity of this mess, as TVA makes plans to contain and abate the disaster -- there is a story that has not been told. It is a story that must be told. And that story is the lives of innocent bystanders that have been turned upside down by this avoidable disaster.
I learned of this disaster on the news just as we all did. Usually I receive an email from someone in the community where there has been an environmental problem. At first, it was all quiet. About 10 days after the tragedy I got the first email, then another one and another one and another one, and they kept coming. I also started receiving anonymous tips. It occurred to me that maybe more was going on than what I could gather from the news. With an invitation from the community, I decided to make the trip.
Let's be honest. Usually when I am called into an environmental disaster, I anticipate that industry isn't going to step up to the plate and do what's right by the people. Lawsuits almost always ensue; it would be foolish for me to walk into a situation like this without an attorney. Besides, I consult with two law firms in the United States: Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles and Weitz & Luxenberg in New York. I traveled to the area with an attorney, Robin Greenwald from Weitz and Luxenberg, along with some experts. In many instances such as this disaster, government agencies are absent due to lack of funds and can only rely on the information that industry gives them; and industry generally operates under concealment.
When I first arrived on the site, I was pretty quiet. It took a while to absorb what I was looking at. I knew there was a lake but an entire area was gone. I kept wondering "Where did the water go?" I couldn't decide if it looked more like a tornado had gone through, a mudslide, landslide, maybe a volcano erupted or a tidal wave. It is now a "moonscape." The landscape has completely changed. It is almost unidentifiable.
Watching TV never gives you an idea of the extent of damage. It's only when you stand there that you can actually feel the magnitude.
It struck me that I had an unusual taste on my lips and in my mouth. I asked others if they noticed that, and they did. Some experienced scratchy throats, respiratory problems, itchy and burning eyes and tasted what one expert believed to be sulfuric acid. If we were experiencing this much discomfort after a few minutes, what on earth are the people who live here feeling?
The other thing that stood out in my mind was how fortunate it was that this event took place when it did.
What would it have been like had this occurred in the summer during the middle of the day? Hundreds of people boat on this lake. Children swim and play in these waters. I was struck by the number of deaths that might have occurred but didn't.