coal ashThe coal ash that spilled from a failed impoundment at TVA’s Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee filled the Emory River, creating huge mounds of toxic waste that locals called ashbergs.Photo: Sarah McCoinA special Facing South investigation.

Shortly before 1 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2008, a dike holding back an 84-acre pond of wet coal ash at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant near Harriman, Tenn. ruptured and collapsed following weeks of heavy rains. A billion gallons of muddy, gray coal ash loaded with arsenic, lead and other contaminants poured across the nearby Emory River to the neighborhood along Swan Pond Road.

The toxic tidal wave hit suddenly, taking sleeping residents by surprise. It damaged a total of 42 homes, pushing one house completely off its foundation and rendering three others uninhabitable. It tore down trees, pushed boats off docks, washed out a road and a railway, ruptured a major gas line, broke a water main, and ripped down power lines. No people died in the disaster, though a dog that had been tied up in the yard of one house was buried by the coal ash and couldn’t be rescued in time.

Some residents didn’t realize what had happened until after dawn, when they awoke to a landscape that one survivor described as looking like “a movie scene on the ugliest planet imaginable.” The sludge covered almost half a square mile of once-beautiful riverfront land, reaching six feet deep in places. A popular local fishing cove was filled with coal ash, the massive chunks sticking up 20 feet in the air like dirty icebergs.

Since the disaster, TVA has been scraping up the spilled ash from the land and dredging it out of the waterways, with the main channel of the Emory set to reopen this week. But the company estimates that 500,000 cubic yards of spilled ash will remain in the river because workers simply can’t get it all out. And while the EPA previously advised people against swimming, tubing and other activities near the disaster site because of the risk of contact with toxic ash, the agency and state officials are now saying that the remaining coal ash presents minimal health risks — though they’re still recommending that people wash off after leaving the water.

The effects of the Kingston disaster will be felt for a long time. How could something like this happen? And could a similar coal ash tragedy strike elsewhere?

‘Appropriate safety modifications were not made’

coal ashProblems including leaks had plagued the coal ash impoundment at TVA’s Kingston plant for years before its collapse, raising questions about why the company and state regulators failed to take action.Photo: John WathenThe catastrophic collapse at Kingston was the culmination of problems that for years had been plaguing the plant’s impoundments — those massive and usually unlined holding ponds where the waste is dumped after burning coal for power. But TVA had repeatedly failed to fix those problems, and an inadequate regulatory system failed to address them.

A July 2009 report by TVA’s Inspector General found that red flags were raised as far back as 1985, when an internal memorandum written by a TVA engineer cited concerns about the stability of the Kingston coal ash storage facilities — concerns echoed in two 2004 reports by external engineering consultants hired by TVA.

The Inspector General’s report also noted that a 1987 internal TVA memorandum stated that the impoundments had become “quite high with increasing risk and consequences of a breech” and recommended more rigorous inspection standards. That led to discussions about managing the ash ponds under the company’s dam safety program, but TVA ultimately decided not to do that. On top of that, local residents had reported leaks in the dam going back as far as 2001, and the utility itself acknowledged that there had been leaks there in 2003 and 2006.

“TVA could have possibility prevented the Kingston Spill if it had taken recommended corrective actions,” according to the report. “For reasons that are still not entirely clear, appropriate safety modifications were not made.”

TVA has also drawn criticism from affected residents and environmental advocates for not being straightforward about the scale and impact of the Kingston spill. At first, the utility dramatically underestimated the amount of ash released and incorrectly claimed that no dead fish were found downstream of the disaster.

TVA described coal ash as consisting primarily of “inert material not harmful to the environment.” In reality, coal ash contains potentially harmful levels of toxic arsenic, lead, and mercury. The utility also likened the radioactive threat from the coal ash to radioactivity in table salt, even though researchers with Duke University in North Carolina found significant levels of cancer-causing radioactive elements in the ash.

TVA has even been accused of manipulating science methods to downplay water contamination caused by the spill, with evidence showing that it may have intentionally collected water samples from relatively clean spots in the Emory River. As Pennsylvania hydrogeologist Bob Gadinski told The Nation, it appears  that TVA “isn’t interested in properly mapping the contaminants in that river.”

At the same time, the company created difficulties for independent researchers monitoring contamination from the spill. In December 2008 TVA police issued a warning ticket for criminal trespass to Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Marie Lisenby for trying to access the spill site by kayak to take samples — though she was on a public waterway and there were no signs indicating the river was closed. Then in early 2010, TVA blocked Lisenby and other researchers from accessing an established sampling point along the Emory because they weren’t wearing hardhats and safety vests. When they asked permission to return to shore to get the equipment, TVA refused.

“It’s been a story about hiding the truth from the people, and preventing the truth tellers from being able to tell the truth,” Lisenby said.

And while TVA commissioned a study of the impoundment’s failure by the Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM, TVA’s Inspector General found that it designed the study in a way that minimized management’s liability and provided no lessons for the company to draw on.

The IG’s 2009 audit report said TVA’s actions seemed more focused on avoiding lawsuits than learning lessons from the disaster. As the report concluded, “TVA has urged everyone just to ‘move forward’ without further examination of what responsibility TVA management may have had for the disaster that occurred on December 22, 2008. TVA management handled the root cause analysis in a manner that avoided transparency and accountability in favor of preserving a litigation strategy.”