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Scott Slesinger’s Blog

Two Year Anniversary of the Tennessee coal ash spill

Scott Slesinger

Posted December 22, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil

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Two years ago today, on December 22, 2008, a retention pond wall collapsed at Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, releasing a combination of water and  coal ash that flooded 12 homes, spilled into the nearby Watts Bar Lake, contaminated the Emory River, and upended untold lives.  Instead of spending $20 million to properly handle the toxic waste, the Tennessee Valley Authority thought it would be wise to depend on a dangerous earthen dam.  Cleaning up the mess is costing TVA ratepayers billions of dollars, not millions. 

EPA has now, finally, proposed rules to properly handle the waste from utilities.  For over a generation, despite laws to protect Americans from harmful disposal of hazardous waste, the utilities were able to use a loophole in the law to treat this toxic waste, loaded with arsenic and other toxic metals, the same as municipal sewage.

This excellent article from Mother Jones highlights some of the effective lobbying efforts of the nation’s utilities to influence the Obama White House to weaken EPA’s proposal, and even have the Agency come out with two alternative proposals—one that would protect communities and one that would makes “suggestions” to states that the majority of states with coal plants would conveniently  ignore.  The difference between these two proposals is the difference between standards and a joke.

The problem is nationwide.  Although dams have not collapsed in many states, wells and other drinking water sources have been contaminated by improper coal ash disposal across the country. Meanwhile, the utilities have been active on Capitol Hill urging members to sign letters to oppose protecting those, like those in Harriman, TN, who live behind these dams or drink water contaminated by these impoundments.  We look to Administrator Jackson to stand up to these assaults, protect the public health and environment, and issue the final rule as soon as possible.  Otherwise, the utilities failure to properly handle this toxic waste will continue to endanger the health of countless Americans in communities like Harriman, TN across the country.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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