July 10th, 2009
11:00 PM ET

A bittersweet journey in Eastern Tennessee

The coal ash spill more than six months ago left this area of Eastern Tennessee devastated.

Erin Brockovich

Being asked to help the people of Tennessee who have been so devastated by the coal ash disaster has been bittersweet.

It is bitter because it is so shameful that a community should have their homes and lives torn apart by a corporation that could have taken steps to avoid this impending disaster, which they knew was imminent. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) knew of breeches and leaks but did nothing to stop them.

It is bitter because people are experiencing sickness since the disaster and are fearful for their children and families; who wouldn’t be?

One billion gallons of ash, debris and other muck laden with arsenic and radionuclide came roaring down upon them in the night, and they are now having difficulty breathing and have developed skin rashes, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems. What's worse is that they are being told that these materials can’t harm them, yet their bodies tell them otherwise.

There are millions of gallons of uncontained coal ash still in this area. It is bitter because it is summer, a time when in years past, the lakes and rivers were filled with boaters and families fishing. The valley echoed with the laughter of children. Yet now, those sounds of laughter and joy have been silenced. The community and its people are fearful and have become prisoners of their own homes.

Working with this community is sweet for only one reason; I have had the honor to get to know these people. Members of this community either grew up in or moved to this area because they love nature and the great outdoors and believed that they had found a little piece of heaven on earth.

They could enjoy some unspoiled place where nature thrived in their own backyards, where they could enjoy the laughter of their children as they played and where they could appreciate the soothing sounds of nature. But then, on December 22, the roars of disaster rolled over and through their neighborhood leaving their hopes and dreams of the future extinguished nearly as fast as one could blow out a match.

So why did I go to Tennessee when members of the community asked me to go? Because together with the law firm of Weitz and Luxenberg I knew that we could help them to organize, to remember that they have rights and to keep their hopes alive that one day soon their community could be returned to them. The people of Harriman, Kingston and surrounding areas are strong, proud people and it is critical that their voices not be silenced.

This community needs to be protected as the pieces of their lives are slowly put back together, and I hope that we can learn from this disaster about how to STOP future communities from being devastated before the unthinkable happens. It is a disaster waiting to happen all over again.

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. cathy from Barbados

    Dear Miss. Brockovich

    At first glance it looks like Katrina, I can't belive people have to live day after day with toxins like that. The one hope is that you and the firm are exposing this calamity. Time is the essence.

    July 12, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  2. D, A Tennessee

    The TVA has a big job and alot of responabilty because thay controll the dams that are in the rivers and streams in our back yards. When you mine you destroy the ecosystem what do they do with the left overs they make huge dams with this stuff to hold the water that comes out of the mines well when they leave the area they put some body over the dam but when one gets greedy they dont want to spent the money to maintain the damn one time when a ash dam broke the person over the dam did not spend the money to maintain the dam one of his workers told him 3 days before it broke that it was about to break the manager told him ill take care of it when he found out it was going to take 300 dollers to have it checked out thourly he said no thank you 3 days later it broke and I think it killed a few people .the clean up took mounths to clean up at a few hundred millions of dollers and the manager was fired from his job the people of that town are still recovring form it to this day.

    July 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm |
  3. Rick

    HUH! Hello!! Wheres the EPA on this?

    July 12, 2009 at 5:51 am |
  4. Becky

    A Disaster 100 times that of Valdez? And not much News coverage on it? Hmmm. Wonder why they are Focusing so strongly and so excessively on poor Michael Jackson. They need to focus on Eastern Tennessee. This is UnBelievable!!

    July 12, 2009 at 1:58 am |
  5. John Doe

    I never even heard this tragic story. Once again the bigoted liberal media ignores disasters like this because the victims are mostly poor white folks in the Appalachians. Is there anything we, the public, can do to help?

    Thanks to Erin Brockovich for this story.

    July 12, 2009 at 12:36 am |
  6. margaret donnan

    we cannot continue to allow things like this and the ongoing nightmare of katrina victims to continue. this is the greatest country in the world... we have to remember that,and act like it. these atrocities happen in 3rd world countries and should not be happening in the U.S.A. erin brokovich and anderson cooper are 2 brave people filled w/integrity who bring to light the horrifying atrocities that happen to our citizens. remember "what you do to the least of these .......you do to Me......."

    July 12, 2009 at 12:04 am |
  7. William of Iowa

    Our society, both corporate and civilian, has become so dehumanized by our penchant to litigate any and all issues affecting life. When tragic events occur our attitude is denial of culpability and responsibility to others who have been harmed by blatant irresponsibility and ignorance. Maybe it is only a utopian dream, but I hope that one day we will rise as a people and recognize unsafe situations that exist by our hand whether in the employ of corporate America or as private citizens and make them right. The fact that our fellow Americans must rely on "advocates for cause" just seems wrong. I do congratulate Ms. Brockovich for her efforts and wish her good luck.

    July 11, 2009 at 10:52 pm |
  8. Crystal Curry

    I am living in the county that this coal ash is being disposed of in Perry County Alabama. Believe me it is not okay with us for it to come here. I hate it for the people living in the damaged ruins... and now TVA has tried to come into our county and tell us it is as safe as the sand in our childrens sandboxes. Sadly our political agenda got ahead of the people of our county as usual. We are very sad about this.

    July 11, 2009 at 5:25 pm |
  9. Sude

    You went, Anderson, because you felt like they weren't being heard. That's what you do best. You lend your voice to good solid citizens who live their lives, always doing the right thing and one day they get run over by something bigger than they are. They want to be heard so that someone will apologize and make it right for them.

    July 11, 2009 at 12:00 pm |
  10. John

    Thank you for getting involved in this issue. It's obvious that the elected officials in TN care more about TVA than the citizens affected by this tragedy.

    July 11, 2009 at 8:28 am |
  11. Larry

    From my perspective, the effects of this accident could have been significantly minimized or possibly even eliminated had the EPA under its existing standards applicable to hazardous wastes, 40CFR262, designated coal fly ash as hazardous. Fly ash from coal-fired power plants and incinerators often contains hazardous materials.
    Flyash can contain over twenty chemicals some of which at concentrated levels can pose health risk to humans. Considering just three elements normally contained in flyash residue lead, arsenic, and cadmium, a daunting future health challenge can exist for the residents of the Kingston area and for the workers involved in the clean up.

    • Exposure to inorganic arsenic can produce dermatitis (skin inflammation), keratoses (horny growths on the skin), peripheral neuropathies (diseases of the nerves of the extremities), peripheral vascular diseases (diseases of the arteries and veins of the extremities), and cancer of the skin, liver, and lungs.

    • Chronic lead exposure has resulted in nephropathy (kidney damage), gastrointestinal disturbances, anemia, and neurologic effects.8. These effects may be felt as weakness, fatigue, irritability, high blood pressure, mental deficiency, or slowed reaction times.

    • Exposure to cadmium produces a wide variety of effects involving many organs and systems. Long-term occupational exposure to cadmium is most strongly associated with an increased occurrence of lung cancer, kidney damage, and chronic obstructive lung disease

    Risks to the health of children, expectant mothers, and individuals with compromised health conditions from exposures to these chemicals are of special concern.

    July 11, 2009 at 5:55 am |
  12. Michell

    I live about 7 miles away from this.I have been plagued with chronic fatigue and headaches so has my 15 yr old son,plus nose bleeds.Our latest blow was my almost 2 year old was just diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.They told us the water was safe and we believed them.I just really want to know if this water is safe or not,because we bath in it ,drink it and all kinds of things.I want to know if the water we are drinking and bathing in is makeing us sick ??Or even the air?

    July 11, 2009 at 3:30 am |
  13. Sarah Winters

    Dear Erin,

    I hope that you are able to do some good for those people TN. As the cost of health care in this country is rising not very many people are able to go to hospitals or doctors to be seen for illnesses that they are experiencing. As a health care worker, I see many people come in to the hospital I work for with many of those same issues and they end up spending a lot of money just to stay at the hospital for a couple of days. This issue in TN is not only an environmental issue but it is a health issue for those people. I pray that you are able to shed some light on those peoples lives because we all know that those big money hungry corporations are not willing to do anything to clean up their mess!

    July 11, 2009 at 3:03 am |
  14. J.V.Hodgson

    I really do find all this strange.
    Where has the environmental lobby been on all this and the EPA.
    Literally 30 years ago ( depite the claims of cost) the Coal mining companies in UK were forced to Level "slag heaps" and make them enviromentally stable by planting grasses trees and fertilising same for the longer term. It was created by the so called "Abberfhan mining village " disaster in Wales a region of England, which wiped out a whole village and school thru a "slag slide" after heavy rains.
    This indiscriminate "dumping activity" is what keeps coal so called cheap as a source of "energy" but simply means "live now pay later!!"
    Wher is the genuine " Corporate Social Responsibilty" ( CSR)
    CSR is not just about child labour in third world countries it is about CSR to the communities and environment in which you operate.They should not just have to dump but make the environment the same as it was before they started. Using a lake as a convenience is not good CSR!! whateve precautions you take it is pure unadulterated environmental destruction. Cheap open cast coal mining is economic to corporates to keep the price low but environmentally unjustified without some restoration thereof after the resource is depleted.
    Erin tackle this from a CSR perspective and environmental protection issue then link it to the health risks. More chance of a quick response and simpler to prove!!
    Loved the movie!!

    July 11, 2009 at 2:50 am |
  15. Janet Wolfbauer

    How could anyone looking at this refuse to believe in golbal warming. It is beyond me and so stunning to me that the people who live in these areas have not gone to their governors, mayors, etc., homes and pulled them right out onto their big lush lawns and tard and feathered them! It is so shocking and yet, what these big shots have done to the regular hard working folks in this country is just to amazing to comprehend. When will this nightmare end?

    July 11, 2009 at 2:20 am |
  16. Isa

    This is unbelievable! when I heard about it then read it again. I just take a deep breath and sigh each time I read stories like this because I would love to help to clean up but its not so easy. One Billion gallons of ASH. I truly feel for the people who are now so ILL. I Love Children and I really feel for the children and the elderly. I do agree somewhat with Grace..where each state hangs on to money like its theirs instead of the state or cities. They take care of it like our Gov. here in California. Funny how he gains his weight yet blames the govt....I am a humanitarian my only effort I can give is prayer for the now ill and that a miracle will happen. Peace

    July 11, 2009 at 2:12 am |
  17. Paul Scott

    Well done CNN; this is a big story and you have covered it in a professional, fair and engaging manner. Erin: congratulations on your unwavering perseverance to help others first and foremost because you truly care about the health, safety and justice of people and families vs. your self interest or pocketbook (as I understand your career story).

    July 11, 2009 at 1:47 am |
  18. William Courtland

    So it looks like the powerplant just bought themselves a much larger containment pond area...

    Now about the families: they should be relocated.

    It is a bother that it is a utility breach and not that of an industry.

    Clean coal: is clean when processed into light brine and used to bioengineer life for domestic release into the oceans. Salt water bacteria: under higher pressures: like near the bottom...

    The dirt will likely be required to be trucked out otherwise: but making it a giant salt pond: and feeding life with your wastes. The new system for the USPS could likely keep that basin full with a dedicated water line mixing carried salts or as summer runout from the salt water lines... Yet how often really does Tennesse freeze...

    July 11, 2009 at 12:39 am |
  19. Brandy

    We have a Coal Mine coming in less than 1/4 of mile behind us we have 3 houses on our land, and our family lives in them. Our family has started getting these symptoms... My kids have both had runny gooey eyes, headaches, ear aches My mom and I personally have a cough that we cannot get rid of and headaches all the time, my husband also has headaches my nephews both have asthma and have been having problems breathing.. Who can I contact to help?? We have tried to contact the mine and DNR and went to meetings and no one will help / pay attention to us.. Please help.

    July 10, 2009 at 11:50 pm |
  20. Dee Pierce

    Although most East Tennesseans (particularly those who live in Knoxville) are already aware of this environmental disaster and the immediate aftermath, this story made me realize how important it is for our local media to continue to investigate and provide regular follow-up reports. So, WBIR, WATE, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel: we're counting on you!!!

    I have not yet seen in person the devastating effects to the nearby landscape but I have heard of children from that area who have been treated for asthma and other upper respiratory problems at a Knoxville pediatrican's office. Seeing this story makes me even more concerned for the Kingston families as well as the possibility of the coal ash seeping into all of our local water systems and polluting the air. I don't think enough people (in the surrounding area) realize that this spill could potentially affect the health of even more East Tennessee residents. And the worse part is that we might not know until five or 10 years from now.

    We, as a community, need to be learning as much as we can about the dangers of coal ash and doing everything we can to protect ourselves from this environmental threat.

    July 10, 2009 at 11:36 pm |
  21. Travis Miles

    Something needs to be done to help the people of Kingston and maybe she is the one that can do the job.

    July 10, 2009 at 11:31 pm |
  22. Tyler Miles

    Hello, I am 12 years old.The ash is not harming anyone that I know.Some of my friends live less than 3 minutes from the ash spill and they have not been harmed any.From what I know people have been saying Kingston is a toxic waste dump, Kingston is a beautiful place and a great place to live.No one can say Kinston is a toxic waste dump. Kingston is the greatest place to live a no one can tell me otherwise.

    July 10, 2009 at 11:30 pm |
  23. Hanna Raymer


    July 10, 2009 at 11:29 pm |
  24. Lynn Vincentnathan

    I'm going to share this with my summer class I'm starting next week on Environmental Crime and Justice. Many many more people are harmed, killed, and have their property harmed or destroyed by human-caused environmental harms than by so-called "street crime." Such environmental crimes/harms are also referred to as corporate violence. We seem to be overly obsessed with lesser problems, while totally ignoring the much more serious problems and threats.

    July 10, 2009 at 11:07 pm |
  25. trevor miles

    Im 13 and live in kingston 5 minutes from the ash and we are not choking ash.Nobody i know or have talked to has had any health problems the lake was already dirty because of the oak ridge plants NOT because of TVA.I know some of the people who work to clean up the ash and they have been told it is NOT harmful, things might look bad but nobody has been harmed.

    July 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm |
  26. Mary Carolyn Perry

    i was born in eastern Tennessee and think the EPA needs to jump right in and make these companies pay for the danger they have brought to this community. This is nothing to bargain and argue about...the corporation did it....and they need to get their asses in gear and do what is right...NOW!

    July 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm |
  27. Delores

    the piece mentioned a list of these retention tanks of coal sludge are located.. can you post that list.... this is just awful that this is being ignored .. thank you for taking this issue to this level....
    a company is getting ready to build a "clean coal" plant near Kingsport, TN and I fear they will not be stopped..... there is no such thing as clean coal and the average person does not realize that these "retention tanks exist and the dangers they propose in the future or maybe happening now...I would like to help in anyway I can... please contact me

    July 10, 2009 at 11:00 pm |
  28. Frances

    This environmental disaster will not only impact the people of TN that have endured the "mud/ash" slide. TVA is now exporting the sludge to a landfill in Perry County, Alabama. I can't figure out why the state government of Alabama has agreed to accept this pollution into their state. It's bad enough that Alabama has so much pollution from coal mining but now they'll have to deal with the cast off pollutants from TVA and TN!! I can't help but think someone in state gov't here in AL has benefited from this deal.

    July 10, 2009 at 10:47 pm |

    I from East Tennessee, now living in Virginia. Where in Tennessee and what lake is it? This is the first I've heard about it and it really upsetting. To do something like that in the beautiful mountain of East Tennessee.

    July 10, 2009 at 10:45 pm |
  30. Dr. Gayle

    Why haven't we seen Anderson and Erin reporting on the largest US Superfund site at Kellogg, ID. Hope you'll join the Silver Valley Community Resource Center in their efforts to continue the only grassroots organization advocating for this community suffering from 5 generations of toxic mining waste.
    Now the EPA is adding a toxic dump adjacent to the historic Cataldo Mission because it is easy access from the freeway, in a flood plain where overflow goes directly into the Coeur d'Alene River, the lake and on downstream.
    Lead is always in the air...yards, inside homes and affecting human life.
    This is egregious!

    July 10, 2009 at 10:33 pm |
  31. CC

    Has no one considered that in the 50 plus years of TVA coal-fired plants' existence that there are thousands of current and former employees who have been exposed to exponentially larger amounts of flyash than the December spill? The employees who work in the ash every day are not claiming illnesses from work exposure!

    Ms. Brockovich has not been welcomed by a large part of the community. She is looking for another 15 minutes since hers expired long ago.

    Yes, TVA screwed the pooch by allowing the holding pond to get so large. However, every area resident will have a future that will not include adverse health effects from this spill. GET EDUCATED about the flyash before commenting. Look for unbiased sources who tell all of the pros and cons, not just those with an angle. Residents should be more worried about exposure from Oak Ridge, which is just upstream!

    July 10, 2009 at 10:21 pm |
  32. Grace garlough

    This is just like the dam breaking in new Orleans. Something that could have been prevented but the people in power refused to spend the time or money helping keep inocent people safe we must learn from thease experiences and not allow this to happen to any more comminutes.

    July 10, 2009 at 9:07 pm |
  33. Annie Kate


    Thank you so much for working with these people on this mess. When it happened I was just heartsick because I know TVA and how little they will do to clean up their own mess. East Tennessee is a beautiful place generally – filled with a plush greenness amid splashes of colors from flowers and water; there truly isn't a prettier place to live until this happened – there is nothing pretty about these pictures.

    Once you get these people taken care of and the area cleaned up I wish you would look a little bit further north (in the states of TN, KY, and WV primarily) and see what mountaintop mining is doing to the Appalachian mountains there. Big coal is decimating the area and leaving big ponds of sludge behind them there also – one is huge and located just above an elementary school. There is another disaster waiting to happen. That is another case I think you would be able to do a great deal of good on for the locals who live there.

    Thank you for getting involved in this. As a native East Tennessean I truly appreciate it.

    July 10, 2009 at 7:48 pm |
  34. Betty

    Where's Erin Brockovich? She can get this taken care of.

    July 10, 2009 at 6:54 pm |
  35. Donna Fuller

    My daddy was raised in Eastern Kentucky in the 20's and 30's and many times lived in company housing under slag piles left by the coal companies. People were frequently killed, maimed and left homeless when these piles gave way. So what's new? Corporations have more rights than people, then and now.

    July 10, 2009 at 6:43 pm |