Tennessee Coal Ash Spill Before And After -- And What's Next

01/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dave Burdick Man about Boulder: dailycamera.com, biggreenboulder.com, fridayallweek.com

The online environmental community is abuzz with reports of all kinds about the coal ash sludge spill in Tennessee, ranging from first-hand accounts to health concerns to worries about coal in general. Twitter in particular has been a place where people have been posting news stories and concerns.

Joe Romm blogs at ClimateProgress that the muck has a lot of people worried about how easy it would be for another such spill to happen:

Coal ash deposits in the USA are now under renewed scrutiny after a giant spill just before Christmas released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic sludge into Tennessee waterways. Water tests near the spill from the Kingston Fossil Plant showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders. The spill muddied the waters in the Emory river and is flowing into tributaries of the Tennessee River - the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

So now a big question mark hangs over the hundreds of coal plants all across the country which store their fly ash in unlined embankments and ponds -- like the one that failed last week. Most are situated near rivers that supply water needed by the coal plants to operate.

The NY Times reported that in the US, coal plants produce 129 million tons of postcombustion byproducts a year. It's the second-largest waste stream in the country, after municipal solid waste, and it's storage and handling is unregulated. Who knew?

MSNBC reports on the cleanup and asks the rhetorical question: once the muck is gone, does that mean the problem is gone?