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June 13th, 2009
09:00 AM ET

Choking on ash

Properties near ground zero of the December 22 Tennessee spill are covered in sludge.

Properties near ground zero of the December 22 Tennessee spill are covered in sludge.

Stephanie Smith
CNN Medical Producer

Before December 22nd, except for people living near coal-burning plants, the phrase "coal fly ash" was not a part of the lexicon.

These days, coal, and specifically the waste produced when it is burned – called coal fly ash – are frequently topics of conversation, at least in Congress.

The conversation began after the largest industrial disaster in U.S. history – a spill ten times worse than Exxon Valdez.

It happened three days before Christmas, on a cold morning before dawn. A dam holding back more than one billion gallons of coal fly ash sludge trembled and finally broke, blanketing 300 acres in Kingston, Tennessee, and nearby Harriman, Tennessee. The coal ash, which was stored at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant for more than 50 years before the breach, could not be safely disposed. It was mixed with water and pumped into giant holding ponds.

There are no Federal guidelines or oversight over the more than 1300 ponds like the TVA's in the U.S. According the Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash is subject to the same regulations as household garbage.

At a press conference in Washington, Senator Barbara Boxer announced that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified 44 more sites like TVA's which pose a "high hazard" to nearby communities, but that the EPA in consultation with the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Homeland Security, will not disclose the list of sites publicly.

In a letter addressed to those agencies, Senator Boxer indicated that if a breach were to occur at any of these sites, it would "pose a threat to the lives of people nearby." Boxer also emphasized the public's right to know where the hazardous sites are located, saying that the knowledge could empower it to press local authorities to make the sites safer.

Testing revealed that coal fly ash at the TVA site was laden with toxic elements like arsenic, lead and selenium, and radioactive waste. A slew of independent studies, including a recent Duke University study, indicate that the environment, the water, and the air near the TVA plant have been contaminated, and fish pulled from the Tennessee, Clinch and Emory rivers are testing at dangerously high levels for selenium and other heavy metals.

The environment is destroyed.

Six months after the spill, families living near the TVA plant are still reeling. Their chronic health concerns include upper respiratory problems, asthma, ear infections, headaches, and nausea. Organizations monitoring the situation on the ground are reporting those, and more, health problems in people living as far as 10 miles away from Kingston: bleeding from the ears, vomiting, skin rashes, blisters, and polyps in the nose.

Many in the area fear that every day they're breathing in cancer-causing toxins. Many in the area are frightened about the future.

Now, it seems, 44 more communities like the ones in eastern Tennessee also hang in the balance.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Teri Blanton

    Kentuckians bear a heavy burden for supplying the nation with electricity. We not only host the extraction end of the coal industry, bombing and burying communities in the coal fields and choking the life out of our streams and rivers with mud, we are also home to 22 coal-fired power plants with 56 generating units, suffering from both the air pollutants from their stacks and the toxic-laden ash the coal leaves behind.

    This is just another example of the high price we are paying for this “cheap energy” we produce from coal. By letting the coal power industry dispose of an industrial waste full of heavy metals and other toxins as cheaply as possible, we’re letting the public pick up the cost in terms of their health, even their lives.

    The regulatory agencies have done a poor job of protecting human health and the environment from coal combustion wastes. This is just another indirect subsidy to the power industry because they have taken this horribly toxic stuff and dumped it into basically holes in the ground.

    A lot of these pits are unlined and even though we know that coal ash is a huge public health risk. Many of these sites have continued to operate without ground water monitoring. The regulatory agencies can’t tell us how bad a public health risk this is because no one has been watching.

    June 15, 2009 at 10:11 am |
  2. Hurricane CREEKKEEPER

    That is why WATERKEEPER Alliance is working so diligently to keep it in people's minds. We can not allow complacency to set the stage for this again!

    June 15, 2009 at 9:20 am |
  3. ronvan

    It's all about $$$$. We keep seeing things like this but then forget about it. While everyone is worried about our growing debt & what our grandchildren will think of us, we miss the point that what will our grandchildren think when our planet is dead!

    June 15, 2009 at 8:39 am |
  4. carl buck shoupe

    As a life long resident of the Appalachian Mountains, vietnam veteran,deep coal miner, disabled coal miner by being covered up by 3 ton of rock 4 mile underground, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, I applaud the news coverage of CNN concerning the vast destruction that coal is doing to the environment. I would never have had such a negative opinion of the coal industry 10 yrs ago because they were supporting Appalachian communities, now they are destroying them. I live in Harlan County Ky. coal has been my life and still depend on the UMWA for my pension, but Eastern Ky is now without any representation and coal is still being mined at a tremendous rate of tonnage. Mountain top removal is self explanatory, the coal being mined is 14% MTR and this percentage is destroying a tremendous amount of the Appalachian Mtns. We are presently in a fight for our beautiful community of Lynch (Harlan County) Ky. Please keep covering the criminal destruction MTR is causing in Appalicha.

    June 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm |
  5. Lori

    Hopefully its not too late to to clean up the environment and employ clean fuels for energy. The people who are being or have been exposed to health risks have a right to disclosure. It is not clear why these disposal sites are a secret. In California, contaminated sites are listed on the internet at the Department of Toxic Substance Control website. Anyone can go online and get information on the responsible party and the status of regulatory compliance.

    June 13, 2009 at 2:32 pm |
  6. Joey O

    Stories like this just go to show that our government cares more about business and the loose regulations that allow them to get away with harming residents. And there is no such thing as clean coal. Its dirty to start with and dirty at the end.

    June 13, 2009 at 2:09 pm |
  7. Charlie Smith

    When was or will this be televised?
    I had heard that is was to be Friday night, but apparently the lone terrorist pushed it out.
    Can I view it on line?

    June 13, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  8. Tim from Richelieu

    Looks like Obama is going to have to clean up the EPA too!
    Along with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security,

    June 13, 2009 at 12:07 pm |
  9. Alyzabeth

    Wow, that's horrible.

    June 13, 2009 at 9:50 am |