A retention pond at the Kingston, Tennessee steam plant holding hundreds of millions of gallons of coal fly ash burst today, spilling toxic sludge into the nearby town of Harriman. At present, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) estimates that 3.1 million cubic feet of fly ash has oozed into the Clinch River. Already, there are reports of dead fish along the banks of the river. The total acreage affected far exceeds the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Coal fly ash is the residue formed after burning coal in a steam plant. Hundreds of retention ponds across Appalachia hold fly ash generated from TVA plants and other sources. The toxicity of fly ash is very high; it typically contains dangerous levels of mercury, arsenic and benzine. If not safely contained, fly ash can destroy the plant and animal life of the affected area, permanently ruin homes and farms, and contaminate the water supply. The Clinch River is a tributary of the Tennessee River, and the city of Chattanooga gets its water from the river downstream from the spill site.
This is not the first time a major coal ash spill has caused an environmental catastrophe. In 2000 a major spill in Inez, KY, 300 million gallons of waste made its way into local waterways.
Overall, this is a major headache for the coal industry, which is trying to market a non-existent product called “clean coal technology” to the public. This spill, which authorities still cannot determine the cause of, highlights the environmentally damaging effect of coal. From mountaintop removal to CO2 emission, to acid rain, to sludge runoff, to fly ash disposal, the coal industry is nothing but dirty.
Incidentally, it is not the great employer it once was. Coal mining is entirely mechanized now, offering a handful of employees well-paying jobs. Counties in southeastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia still rely on coal mining for tax revenue – but little else. For most people living in Appalachia, coal is as beneficial to life as oil is to the people of Iraq: a poison pill to the extreme.