Environmental

Gulf coast oil spill reminiscent of coal ash disaster

Another preventable environmental crisis strikes again, leaving behind a murky forecast for those in its wake. First there was the coal ash spill that dumped a billion gallons of sludge on to homes, property and waterways in east Tennessee. Then came the massive oil spill following an explosion in a rig 50 miles off the Louisiana coastline, a still uncontained problem that is oozing millions of gallons of oil into the ocean wreaking havoc in its wake.

The residents of Kingston, Tenn., know the scenario well by now. It’s been 14 months since an impoundment pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal-burning plant breached, sending a wave of toxic material over 300 acres and into the Emory River. The sludge, piled as high as nine feet in some areas, knocked houses from their foundations, damaged once-pristine property, and contaminated the Emory River, an area once known for its water recreation. Coal ash contains dangerous toxins that have been found to cause serious health problems such as liver damage, neurological problems and cancer. Many in the area have complained of heightened anxiety and breathing problems. Some, including a small child, have tested positive for heavy metal in their blood.

The land may never be completely restored. The residue left behind can still affect wildlife and plants. The TVA is working around-the-clock on what is expected to be a three-year, $1 billion cleanup effort. That cost does not include what the nation’s largest utility is likely to pay in lawsuits against it because of the spill.

The sad fact is that the coal ash spill could have been prevented if the TVA had simply heeded the warnings from engineers who raised concerns of the impoundment pond’s structural integrity just months before the spill.

It’s an all too familiar scenario. Just last year BP suggested that an accident leading to a massive crude oil spill was all but impossible. Yet, it happened. The blowout from a riser pipe a mile below the water’s surface is pouring at least 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean every day. The spill is so large it is expected to be much bigger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, in which 11 million gallons poured into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. The ecological and economic effects could be devastating to an area still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Only time will tell how much damage it will cause or how long it will take for the land, the wildlife, and the businesses that rely on it to be restored. Perhaps it’s time these companies learn a lesson and focus on preventing such disasters rather than waiting until they happen to address them.