Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How Clean is Coal? Coal Ash Spill in Tennessee

The following is my personal observation of the recent pollution disaster that happened just around the bend from where I live.

This morning when I woke up I smelled something horrible, kind of like exhaust, raw gasoline, beer and burned poison... so strong I had to shut my windows to keep from gagging. When I tried to enjoy the sunny day outside I got nauseous, lethargic, and seizure prone. I decided to ask some local friends over email whether they could smell something terrible outside too, and I got mail back saying that everyone had "headaches" and it was probably connected to the TN Coal Ash disaster (with link). WTF? I looked it up and there it was... one of the grossest pollution stories I have ever heard since the Exxon Valdez spill.

"The spill at the utility’s Harriman Fossil Plant deluged more than 300 acres of rural Roane County, destroying three homes and damaging 42 other properties. In nearby Kingston, that raised fears of fouled water and air, while 13 families wait to see if their homes can be salvaged, said Carolyn Brewer, finance director for the city of 5,300. The sludge-like spill, a mixture of water and residue from burned coal, escaped from a 40-acre holding pond after a retaining wall burst last week."

What infuriates me besides the fact that the air outside is tainted like we are living inside a can of roach spray, is that "authorities" have already tried to dumb down the implications of such a disaster.

Here is the conflict between a big corporation cover up and reality:
"...in just one year, the plant’s byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems. And the holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a T.V.A. plant 40 miles west of Knoxville, contained many decades’ worth of these deposits...
For days, authority officials have maintained that the sludge released in the spill is not toxic..."
(VIA NY Times)

And then there's this...
"The authority has been using backhoes and heavy equipment to clean up the ash and is building weirs, or underwater dams, to try to keep it from traveling downstream. Officials do not have an estimate of the cost of the cleanup or how long it will take, said a spokeswoman, Catherine Mackey...
Mr. Smith also criticized the agency for increasing the flow of the Tennessee River to keep the ash from approaching the drinking water intake for Kingston, a town a half-mile up from the confluence of the Clinch and the Tennessee. “They’re actually moving the stuff further downstream, in order to protect the drinking supply at Kingston,” he said. "
(VIA NY Times)

They are moving kind of slow on water testing too...
"Samples taken at the site of the spill in Harriman, 35 miles southwest of Knoxville, “slightly exceed” the standards for some metals, according to a statement from the Tennessee Valley Authority, owner of the coal power plant where the Dec. 22 accident occurred. Results from well-water and air tests won’t be known until later this week, the utility said....
A test for heavy metals in water, soil or sediment should take two to eight hours, said Peter Schulert, the chief executive of the Environmental Science Corporation, an environmental laboratory near Nashville. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t have the results within a day,” Mr. Schulert said.... "
(And that fact is making people mad, rightfully so!)
“They think that the public is stupid, that they can’t put two and two together,” said Sandy Gupton, a registered nurse who hired an independent firm to test the spring water on her family’s 300-acre farm, now sullied by sludge from the spill. “It took five days for the T.V.A. to respond to us.”

They (whoever this "authority" is) tries to make it sound like it's not such a big deal, if you happen to come in contact with this sludge bi-product then just give your hands a little wash. NO advice on what to do when you are breathing it, since there's no brilliant soapy water solution.
"Authorities are testing air quality in the area and “currently evaluating the potential for health effects,” the agencies said in the TVA’s statement. Anyone who touches soil, sediments or water affected by the spill should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water and wash clothes separately from other items, according to the statement. "
(VIA Bloomberg)

So do we all get government distributed respirators too, so that we might be able to breathe safely without getting sick? Big corporations are big babies (ego centric to a fault) - they can never admit when they have done something wrong, they give heartless apologies and keep counting their dollars while all of us sit here breathing polluted air and people's homes, land and water are destroyed. They worry over being sued when they should be sued for any damage they may try to weasel their way out of covering. But really, how can you compensate fully for someone's sludged home and health?


linda said...

Hope your air clears up soon... what an awful thing to happen.

The company who allowed their system to fail like this should be forced to compensate everyone for the loss of good health and safe environment. They can start by picking up any and all costs related to everyone's health care needs, short and long term, and all costs associated with relocation and replacement of contaminated belongings etc, and by providing air purifiers and cleaning materials for everyone who needs them, as well as properly paid and equipped personell to do the cleanup, and for proper studies and research regarding any furure issues that will arise, so ordinary folks aren't saddled with any short or long term costs related to someone else's negligence.

Responsibility has to start somewhere.

Susie Collins said...

This is so horrible. Linda is right, the company responsible should PAY for this. It's not just the people in trouble, but all the animals, the water, the air, it's so far reaching. Leslie, I hate that you are so close to this spill.

We need to stop using coal for energy. This is the side of burning coal that no one ever talks about. It's not just the emissions and mining, it's the ash, the sludge, the byproducts of burning coal. And no matter what anybody says, there is no such thing as clean coal! There's just no place for this 19th century way of producing energy in the 21st century. ENOUGH.

Take care, Leslie.

The Oko Box said...

Hey Linda and Susie!
Thanks for your thoughts and concerns ... i totally agreee with you both.
And I wanted to write a long speech on "clean coal" but the post was already so long and i felt like sh!t ...lol ...
But oh yes, how clean it is with all those MILLIONS of tons of heavy metals floating in a holding pond for decades waiting to break.

Nauseous Nick said...

I was thinking it smelled more like laundry detergent, raid, with a tinge of burning tar! But to each their own....

Susie Collins said...

Oh you poor guys.

I'm not understanding what keeps the ponds themselves from smelling before a break. Is it just that it's now spread out over a larger area?

The Oko Box said...

Hey Susie...
I was trying to find the answer to your question by searching for the original structure of the holding pond - but didn't find any solid decriptions. But I think it is safe to assume that these holding ponds are not open to the air before they break - I think traditionally holding ponds are covered on top too, and the term "pond" is used rather loosely. This is why when they break into open air, that now the TVA and EPA have to test air quality when it is released. I know from personally getting wiffs over here in asheville that the air quality of what was released is pretty hazardous - since all the way over here we got headaches and bloody noses.
Huge 40 mph winds blew in yesterday all day and we are hoping this moved out the majority of the pollution smells. Alot of people have been sick the last week with flu like symptoms.
You can watch a video of the spill over on treehugger- and read their fabuluous article on the subject also here:

Susie Collins said...

Thanks for the info and link. It's hard to comprehend what happened, the spill is so massive.

The Oko Box said...

Thanks to Linda for sending this update in via E-mail! I hope they tell us about the air quality soon too!!!

Tennessee's Toxic Nightmare: Arsenic Levels 35 to 300 Times EPA Standard for Drinking Water


Just-released independent water sampling data from the Tennessee coal ash disaster has shown alarmingly high levels of arsenic and seven other heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and thallium.

"I've never seen levels this high," said Dr. Shea Tuberty, Assistant Professor of Biology at the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Lab at Appalachian State University. "These levels would knock out fish reproduction ... the ecosystems around Kingston and Harriman are going to be in trouble ... maybe for generations."

"Although these results are preliminary, we want to release them because of the public health concern and because we believe the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] and EPA aren't being candid," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Arsenic levels were especially worrisome. "From the water samples you gave us, we had anywhere from 35 to 300 times that [EPA] level" of 10 parts per billion for drinking water, said Tuberty to Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby, who floated a kayak around the "ashbergs" on Decmber 27, five days after the disaster.

After testing for presence of 17 elements that are regulated by the EPA for drinking water, the Appalachian State University team of Tuberty and Dr. Carol Baybak found that the three water samples and one sediment sample provided by volunteers from the Waterkeeper Alliance and Appalachian Voices showed that "eight of them popped out as significantly higher than they should have been for drinking water."
The test data can be found here.

Meanwhile, the TVA continues to stall and delay releasing their water sampling data. TVA, which continues to refer to the disaster as a mere "ash slide," states that "information regarding air quality and water quality has already been published." Clicking the link provided by TVA for "water sample data" directs readers to data that was taken at the city of Kingston Water intake on Dec 22 and 23, the day of the disaster, and before the material started to migrate downstream. TVA does not provide any updated water sampling data on their website.

Chris Irwin, attorney for United Mountain Defense (UMD), a Knoxville-based non-profit that has been at the site since the day of the disaster writes on Jan 2:

"As I type TVA is trying to conduct their press conference - but they are having a small problem: volunteers from United Mountain Defense have handed out the latest [water] test results to all of the press there and are refusing to stop. I just got off the phone with one of our volunteers. He said at first TVA threatened to arrest him if he did not leave. He said he would not--and all the cameras turned on him."

"Gil Francis--TVA's Public relations guy apparently nearly had a heart attack. If UMD can get this data, why can't TVA?"

While some authorities are proposing dredging to remove the ash from the bottom of the Emory River, "dredging will be a nightmare," said Waterkeeper volunteer John Wathen of Alabama. "Constantly stirring the material will cause continuous turbidity issues. Turbidity, or fine clays is where the toxins are contained. Dredging will keep this material waterborne and in transmittable form to be dealt with for miles."