An estimated 500 million gallons of coal ash sludge are seeping along the I-40 Knoxville-Nashville corridor in eastern Tennessee today, after an earthen wall gave way on December 22nd at the TVA Harriman coal-fired plant. While no casualties were reported, the coal ash spill -- the refuse left over after the plant burns the coal --should be a terrifying toxic wake up call about the thousands of coal-fired plants and refuse pile accidents waiting to happen across the county.
Coal ash contains mercury, lead, and arsenic. Nearly 800 Olympic-size swimming pools of that toxic mix are flowing into the waterways of Tennessee right now. As the Knoxville Sentinel News reported today:
"Viewed from above, the scene looked like the aftermath of a tsunami, with swirls of dirtied water stretching for hundreds of acres on the land, and muddied water in the Emory River.
The Emory leads to the Clinch, which flows into the Tennessee. Workers sampled river water Monday, with results expected back today, but didn't sample the dunelike drifts of muddy ash."
For the millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, a spill estimated to be several times bigger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska is creeping into their waterways and aquifers.
Footage of the spill can be seen here.
But here's the nightmare coda: Coal ash is more toxic and radioative than nuclear waste. According to recent studies:
"...the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, fly ash--a by-product from burning coal for power -- contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste."
According to some surveys, people living near coal ash dumps have 900 times the national cancer rates.
Let's hope the TVA, EPA and appropriate government agencies not only deal with this spill in a swift and wise manner; let's hope the new Obama administration recognizes the dangers of dirty coal and accelerates its clean energy program.