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Leaks Reported at TVA Fly Ash Pond in Years Before Spill

Jan 5, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Disturbing questions are being raised about last month's Tennessee fly ash spill.  According to a report in The Chattanooga Times Free Press, the fly ash retention pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant had experienced several leaks over the past decade.  Yet even though it knew about such problems, the TVA continued to allow coal waste to be dumped there.

The Tennessee fly ash spill occurred  around 1:00 a.m. on December 22 after  a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the TVA’s facility in Roane County, Tennessee broke.  Though the exact cause of the accident was not known, 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 TVA said that up to 400 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, making it 48 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The authority now says that  5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic fly ash was released from a retention pond. According to the Knoxville News, that’s triple the estimate of  1.7 million cubic yards the TVA first released. The fly ash spill damaged  15 homes. All the residents were  evacuated, but at least three homes were deemed uninhabitable.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, in 2003 and 2006, leaks at the Kingston plant's retention pond were so bad that TVA repaired drainage and dikes around the pond.  In fact, the authority suspended all deposits in the landfill for nearly 18 months to allow the dredge cell to dry out and stabilize, the Free Press said.

Once the repairs were made, the TVA believed the problems were solved. According to the Free Press, a report on a  2007 TVA inspection of the pond found no hazards, and concluded previous issues had been corrected. Another performed just this past October was not yet available, the Free Press said.  But just two months after that last inspection, the dike at the retention pond  broke.

What's worse, even after the spill, the TVA didn't even know how much coal waste had been released.  As previously reported, the authority revised the initial estimate just days after the spill, nearly tripling it.  The director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy told the Free Press that a lack of regulation likely contributed to the confusion.

According to the Free Press, state agencies, such as the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), control how utilities dispose of coal ash from power plants. During a tour of the site over the weekend, Tennessee's governor said that the TDEC may have relied too much on TVA’s own inspections of the pond.


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