"Clean-Coal" Disaster 100 Times Larger Than Exxon Valdez

kingston "This is not a time when TVA holds its head high" Tom Kilgore, CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority

Last week, the wet coal storage pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant breached and a massive amount of ashen sludge poured into nearby residential areas as well as the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which is the source of drinking water for millions of people. The TVA is currently vouching for the potability of the drinking water - that's their story and they're sticking to it - but any skepticism which may exist among those who consume the water is understandable when faced with the reality of dead fish washing up on shore en masse.

The sheer size of this environmental disaster actually makes the Exxon Valdez oil spill look like small change. We'll come back to that in a moment, but first...

The Christmas lights are rationed at the Hamptons' house in Murfreesboro (Tennessee): one hour a day. They lowered the heat, too, from 68 to 66 degrees. Franklin Hampton said the rationing is because TVA raised electric rates 20 percent this year and tacked on a surcharge, amounting to $32 this month for the Hamptons. "I'm on short-term disability because of knee surgery," said Hampton. "Thirty bucks means a lot."

The surcharge is a fee passed along by TVA to cover the cost of power they had to buy during the hot, dry summer.

Federal documents show that in 2008, the United States taxpayers paid TVA CEO, Tom Kilgore, $2.4 million in salary and performance incentives. Additionally, William McCollum, the chief operating officer, received $1.8 million and the chief financial officer, Kimberly Green received $1.3 million.

TVA awarded the incentives because the executives met certain performance goals. "Must be nice," Hampton said. "Now I know where my $32 a month is going to."

The TVA's Genesis

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a federally owned corporation in the United States created by congressional charter in May 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development in the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly impacted by the Great Depression. The TVA was envisioned not only as an electricity provider, but also as a regional economic development agency that would use federal experts and electricity to rapidly modernize the region's economy and society.

The TVA's jurisdiction covers most of Tennessee, parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small slices of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. It is a political entity with a territory the size of a major state, and with some state powers (such as eminent domain), but unlike a state, it has no citizenry or elected officials.

The TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant has nine coal-fired generating units, and for a time it was the world's largest coal-burning power plant. Currently, the TVA's website boasts that the Kingston Fossil Plant balances "efficient power production with environmental protection". Never mind what occurred on occurred on December 23, 2008.

A day after a spill sent a vast amount of toxic coal sludge over a wide area in Eastern Tennessee, state environmental officials struggled Tuesday trying to assess the damage in hopes that water supplies were not harmed by heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic.

The Tennessee Valley Authority estimated that 1.7 million cubic yards of fly ash, a byproduct of coal incineration that contains the heavy metals, broke through an earthen retention wall at a T.V.A. power plant early Monday morning near Kingston, about 40 miles west of Knoxville. Four to six feet of ash covered 250 to 400 acres in the area.

The sludge damaged a dozen houses, pushing one off its foundation, and caused the evacuation of 22 residences, the authorities said. It flowed into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water to millions of people downstream. Video news reports showed dead fish lining the banks of a nearby waterway.

Environmentalists said the spill, more than 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill, belied the notion of the "clean coal" technology that the industry has spent millions to promote.

But the spill was much bigger, and much worse.

A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated, according to an updated survey by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, gave way on Monday. But on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep. [...]

A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a spokesman for the T.V.A., which owns the electrical generating plant, one of the authority's largest.

Mr. Moulton said Friday that the levels exceeded safety limits for drinking water, but that both metals were filtered out by water treatment processes. [...]

Neither the authority nor the E.P.A. has released the results of tests of soil or the ash itself. Authority officials have said that the ash is not harmful, and the authority has not warned residents of potential dangers, though federal studies show that coal ash can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and carcinogens.

According to a TVA spokesperson, simply touching the ash material is not dangerous, "You'd have to eat it. You have to get it in your body."

Feel free to draw your own conclusions from that statement.

And one last thing. Inspection reports have now come to light showing revealing that the TVA brass knew that such a disaster was highly possible - if not probable. The legal implications are numerous.

Related Reading:
Coal: The Next Subprime?

Getting Real About "Clean Coal"



If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

www.GreenPoliticsNJ.com (anonymous)

It's "Killer Coal" in all references to that material, from now on.

Written in December 2008

Joe (anonymous)

It's "Killer Coal" in all references to that material, from now on. I write about this a lot on www.GreenPoliticsNJ.com

Written in December 2008

BobKincaid (anonymous)

"Clean Filth Technology" strikes again!

Written in January 2009

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  • Posted on Dec. 30, 2008. Listed in:

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