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Rob Perks

Rob Perks

Posted February 6, 2009 | 06:54 PM (EST)

A View to a Spill: Coal Ash Slideshow


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Since the day the waste storage pond broke at the TVA power plant in Tennessee, deluging downstream communities with toxic coal ash sludge, NRDC has been following the issue, assisting our local partners and pushing federal officials to respond.

To get an eye-opening sense of the magnitude of this disaster, we invite you to take a moment to view our new narrated slide show.  (Special thanks to our friends at United Mountain Defense for the photos.)

Supposedly, the Tennessee Valley Authority is spending a million bucks per day to clean up its mess in Tennessee.  With over a billion gallons of contaminated coal sludge, it's safe to say this is a big job.  Some are beginning to question whether it will even be possible to complete the massive cleanup in a way that restores the quality of life once enjoyed by those living downstream in the shadow of TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant.

In fact, a handful of scientists in the state are suggesting that the TVA forego trying to restore the 300-acre site to pre-spill condition in favor of leaving the sludge where it is to serve as a living experiment into the effect of coal pollution on the environment.  They suggest that TVA simply purchase the properties of the victims and convert the entire area into a research and educational zone.  "It would actually be an excellent national center for the effects of coal ash on the environment," according to one of the scientists. 

As reported by the Knoxville News Sentinel, the scientists propose that TVA should:

  • Buy affected land and adjoining properties if owners desire, plus pay dislocation compensation.
  • Build reliable, permanent structures to contain the ash.
  • Work with regulators to allow the ash to remain on site.
  • Install water-control structures to prevent the migration of the ash.
  • Remediate the containment area with consideration given to research needs.
  • Turn ownership of the site to a research entity independent of TVA and governed by stakeholders, including local officials.
  • Remain responsible for cleanup and damage costs.
  • Cover the basic operational costs.

As TVA awaits a formal proposal from the scientists, it is assuring local residents that its plan remains to return the area to the way it was, by removing the ash and restoring the environment.  For now, local officials and affected homeowners don't want anyone to turn their community into a science experiment -- they simply want the area cleaned up so they can resume their lives. Said one resident, in response to the scientists' suggestion:  "Unless they tell me I'm going to die, I'm not moving."

It's one thing for a group of scientists to suggest turning lemons into lemonade in the case of the TVA spill, but the folks living this nightmare don't seem to like the sour taste.  Who can blame them?  

What happened to Harriman could happen to other communities around the country.  There are hundreds of power plants in the U.S., and each one generates toxic waste from the burning of coal for electricity.  As long as we continue to perpetuate coal power we all must live with the risk.  But as far as I know, nobody's life has ever been threatened by a wind turbine or solar panel.  Despite what the coal industry wants people to think, the product it peddles is dirty and, as we've seen in Tennessee, dangerous. 

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.