Coal ash spill worse than originally thought

The December 2008 coal ash spill from a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant in Kingston, Tenn., was already considered one of the nation’s largest environmental disasters, but one year after the spill, authorities say the devastation is even bigger than first imagined. Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, tells The Environment Report’s Tanya Ott that the 2.6 billion pounds of toxic sludge from the east Tennessee impoundment pond is more than the total discharge of all United States power plants last year.

The spill, which piled as high as nine feet in some areas, knocked houses off their foundations, blanketed yards, and poured into the Emory River. Coal ash is laden with toxins such as arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese and barium, which have been linked to serious health problems such as cancer, liver damage and neurological complications. It’s also “notoriously difficult to clean up,” Schaeffer says. The TVA is making efforts, though, spending as much as three years and upwards of a billion dollars to clean up the land and waterways.

Despite its dangerous and toxic contents, coal ash is not classified as a hazardous material and does not fall under government regulations. That is expected to change soon, as over the past year the Environmental Protection Agency has been charged with inspecting all coal-firing plants in the country and developing safety and storage guidelines. Those guidelines were promised before the end of the year, but late last month the agency said it would need more time to issue guidelines, saying it hopes to have a proposal ready in the first few weeks of 2010.