03/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How The Tennessee Coal Spill Reinvigorated A Movement

Sarah McCoin watched for years as coal fly ash piled up at the coal-fired power plant just a mile down the road from her house in Harriman, Tenn. "We'd question, 'I wonder how high they're going to build that thing? I wonder what they're going to do with it after that?'" she said. "It never entered our minds that the thing would blow."

But it did, on Dec. 22. An earthen dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant broke, unleashing about 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry -- roughly enough to fill 798 Olympic-size swimming pools, and 10 times more gunk than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Dark gray sludge -- essentially the waste from coal-burning plants that's deemed too nasty to pump into the air -- surged into the yards of McCoin's neighbors and displaced the water in surrounding ponds and streams, inundating some 300 acres. TVA estimates that cleanup could cost as much as $825 million.

The Kingston spill made activists out of McCoin, Grizzard, and other members of their community. At the same time, it's invigorated anti-coal campaigns that were already underway. Environmental groups have been able to use the TVA disaster as a vivid illustration of a message they've been trying to drive home for years: Coal is dirty from extraction to ignition to waste disposal, and no matter how the industry tries to spin it, it can never be "clean." As the new administration and Congress dig in, activists hope this example can be a potent weapon in the political battle against coal.

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