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Long History of Flaws at TVA Facility

Apr 7, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

We have long been reporting about the December 22, 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) fly ash spill that dumped a massive 5.4 million cubic yards of coal sludge in Tennessee’s Emory and Clinch rivers and 300 acres surrounding its Kingston plant.  Now, Knoxville News is reporting about numerous issues that likely led to the catastrophic spill that left mountains of waste and destruction in its wake.

According to Knoxville News, a review of the records provided in response to the accident have revealed a variety of issues, for example:

  • Engineers raised questions about the walls' stability for decades. In-house engineers noted that the dikes holding ash sludge were incorrectly built and not designed to rise as high as they did.
  • Dike C, which failed, leaked chronically; was not built to engineers' specifications; was used as a foundation for dredge cells, which would increase risk of seepage; and was never intended to be a foundation.
  • Dike B, which failed, was designed to be built as earth, but was built of ash; "The exterior dikes were not designed for additional interior loads”; showed apparent seeps and erosion; revealed danger due to water movement; and suffered a “blowout” in 2003 due to excessive piping of water through the ashen walls.  In 2006, the cell ruptured in the same spot for the same reason.
  • Dikes required constant re-engineering and maintenance; in-house and consulting engineers continually proposed fixes.
  • TVA did not halt dredging this winter but had been known to in past during “the rainier winter months.”
  • The pond was built on clay, which has led experts to speculate that failure was inevitable since increasing the stack also increased pressure on the foundation.


TVA has spent in excess of $68 million in cleanup and $11 million in property acquisitions, to date, with total costs estimated at about $845 million, not including “litigation, penalties and settlements,” said Knoxville News.

There are environmental dangers resulting from the TVA spill, which are exposing area residents and the environment to some serious and dangerous health and environmental problems, such as radium and arsenic exposure. In an earlier report, the Tennessean discussed the potential for dangerous amounts of selenium being released in area waterways and ReadItNews noted that no known coal burning site—including the now infamous Kingston site—are subject to federal regulation, inspection, or environmental monitoring.

Numerous studies conclude that coal dumps leach dangerous toxins into the environment that can cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious health outcomes in water and wildlife populations, but the TVA states that sampling results indicate its air and water quality tests meet government standards and that heavy metal levels are below hazardous waste classifications, said KnoxNews in a prior report.  Water samples reveal mercury levels above and below the criteria for protecting fish for consumption and, while some tests indicated levels that passed the Chronic Water Quality Criteria test, they failed the domestic water supply test, said Volunteer TV/WVLT previously.


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