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Fly Ash Spill Update

Jan 26, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) says it’s close to completing the first phase of its fly ash spill clean up, which has been described as significantly expensive, complex, and lengthy, reports the Tennessee Green.

In December, a dam break at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant caused a massive fly ash—also known as coal ash—spill that released 80 acres of sludge from the facility.  Though the exact cause of the accident remains unknown, it was thought that six inches of rain over the previous 10 days and overnight temperatures in the teens contributed to the dam breach.  The fly ash pond at the plant had a history of safety problems, including two other breaches in the prior six years and a number of so-called “baby blowouts."

Damaging 15 and destroying 3 homes, hundreds of acres of land, and surrounding waterways, the spill is believed to be the largest of its kind in U.S. history.  The ash contains large amounts of toxic chemicals, which have been linked to cancer and other dangerous diseases and, in addition to containing lead, mercury, thallium, and arsenic, contains sharp-edged silica that can be inhaled, concerning health officials.

The clean up is continuing at a rate of about $1 million daily.  Sludge is being stabilized and the TVA is looking at ways to remove ash from the environment and restore the land and water to pre-disaster conditions, said Tennessee Green.  The state of Tennessee must approve TVA’s plan, which must be submitted no later than mid-March, said Tennessee Green.

The TVA said at least 300 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, making it nearly 50 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska; it has since said that 5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic fly ash was released from a retention pond, which—according to the Knoxville News, is triple the estimate of the 1.7 million cubic yards the TVA first released.

One problem has emerged regarding the Emory and Clinch rivers clean-up, said the Tennessee Green, because there are a number of radioactive pockets in the beds which occurred following nuclear power and weapons development there.  Residents are concerned about where the ash will end up and if it can continue to hurt the environment and residents.

Meanwhile, the TVA was accused of minimizing the seriousness of the massive and toxic spill and the Associated Press is reporting that those critics may have been on to something, citing a memo prepared by TVA’s public relations department and intended for a news briefing in which TVA described the spill as a "sudden, accidental release," rather than "catastrophic," among other incriminating items.

It could be years before the environmental impact of the Tennessee fly ash spill is fully understood.  And, despite the dangerous and carcinogenic properties of the waste, several days after the spill, the TVA still had not issued any environmental warnings to nearby residents, and insisted there was no evidence yet about toxins in the fly ash.  One environmental advocate told The New York Times that it was "mind boggling" that the TVA had failed to issue any health warning to residents and various environmental groups warned that the situation would become more dangerous when the toxic muck dries and becomes airborne and breathable.

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