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TVA Ups Fly Ash Spill Estimate

Dec 26, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) now says that  5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic fly ash was released from a retention pond at its Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, TN when a dam burst there early Monday morning.  According to the Knoxville News, that's triple the estimate of  1.7 million cubic yards the TVA released earlier this week.

The TVA said it could take months, if not years, to clean up the Tennessee fly ash spill.   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was supervising the cleanup, and was also trying to determine if the area engulfed by the fly ash should be deemed a Superfund site.

The Tennessee fly ash spill occurred  around 1:00 a.m. after  a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the TVA coal plant in central 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 fly ash spill damaged  15 homes. All the residents were  evacuated, but at least three homes were deemed uninhabitable.  The spill also clogged the nearby Emory River,  which provides drinking water for millions of people living downstream. In the days after the spill, hundreds of fish were seen floating dead downstream from the plant

The environmental scope of the disaster is still not known.  Fly ash is one of the waste products generated when coal is burned.  Studies have shown that fly ash contains significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems.  According to The New York Times, a 2006 study by the National Research Council found that  coal-burning byproducts  such as fly ash contain these toxins in amounts large enough to "pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.

The TVA said its initial water quality tests showed no threat to drinking water.  However, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has yet to complete its own water testing.

At least one environmental group, Greenpeace, is calling for a criminal investigation into  the TVA fly ash spill.  "Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster," Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director said in a press release. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable."  Similar spills have resulted in felony charges, the release noted.

Apparently, the fly ash pond at the TVA Kingston plant had a history of safety problems.  In the days following the spill, the TVA released  inspection reports showing there had been two other breaches of the same fly ash pond during the previous  six years. A report in  The Tennessean also said the plant's neighbors had reported previous "baby blowouts" that caused less severe contamination.  

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