Tennessee Dam Collapse an Ominous Reminder for Coal-field Residents

At 1 a.m. this morning, an earthen dam holding back a pond of coal-ash collapsed, and a  frigid flow of toxic slurry destroyed 15 homes in the small community of Harriman, Tennessee.  The so-called “retainment” dam was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a place to dump poisonous ash left after they burn coal for electricity. 

According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “Coal ash is composed primarily of oxides of silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, magnesium, titanium, sodium, potassium, arsenic, mercury, and sulfur plus small quantities of uranium and thorium (my emphasis).”  Needless to say, the long term health and environmental impacts of TVA’s pollution will be enormous.

Coal-ash ponds are a little-known but major hazard of coal-fired power plants. And wherever these plants are built, hundreds of acres are sacrificed to be the industrial dump site. Unfortunately, ash containment ponds are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lakes of sludge that threaten Appalachian communties. In fact, the ash-ponds are mud puddles compared to the huge reservoirs that loom above “clean-coal” processing plants.

About 100 deadly chemicals are used to separate strip-mined coal from clingy heavy metals like mercury, arsenic,  and selenium (though they are never totally removed). The “cleaning” chemicals, along with the heavy metals and coal residue, do not simply vanish when the job is done. They are pumped uphill and stored behind inherently unstable earthen impoundments. It is hard to appreciate the size of these cesspools. The largest, located in Boone County WV, holds 8 billion gallons of waste! This is 26 TIMES the amount  held by the dam that broke above Buffalo Creek in 1972. 

Crazy as it sounds, these lakes are not even necessary. According to Jack Spadaro, a former mine inspector who was fired when he blew the whistle on government complicity with Big Coal:

One of the reasons they make coal waste impoundments [such as the one that failed at Buffalo Creek or the one threatening an elementary school at Marsh Fork] is that it saves a dollar a ton in processing. But there are other technologies, such as dry filter press systems. Coal impoundments are not at all necessary. There’s been technology around since the 1960s available to industry. It would only cost about a dollar a ton more. 

Since leaving the regulatory agency, Spadaro has devoted his life to ending mountain top removal.  Read his fascinating story.  And then read an equally fascinating interview  he gave to Appalachian Voices.

Over 600 of these major impoundments threaten some of the poorest communities in the country. Yet again, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of “sedimentation ponds” as big as the ash-pond that collapsed in Tennessee sit beneath valley fills at MTR sites.

The law requires that coal companies build these ponds to catch the excess water since vegetation is no longer around to soak it up. The ponds also catch excess sedimention since roots are no longer around to hold back erosion. And of course, the ponds catch the acid mine drainage that comes when the earth is blown up, the fertilizers sprayed on a reclamation site, and any oil that inevitable spills in an industrial operation. These ponds, also held up by earthen dams, are prone to collapse. As seen here.  And here: Buffalo Creek in 1972.

To make things scarier, mining companies have shown an utter disregard for the integrity of the dams they build.  Ed Wiley helped construct an impoundment above his grandaughter’s elementary school, and became alarmed when he realized Massy energy was violating laws designed to prevent a collapse. So alarmed, in fact, that he walked all the way to Washington D.C. to bring attention to the impending disaster.

So what could cause one of these dams to break? In the past, collapses have been caused by coal-industry neglect. What do the magnates on wall-street care if poor people are swallowed up by a wall of slurry? They have pedicures to worry about.  In the case of Buffalo creek, an investigative body concluded that the tragedy was a “murder.”  Violations also caused the 250,000,000 gallon spill in Inez, Kentucky. To discourage future violations, Massy Energy was fined 5,000 dollars… The cost of the clean-up was 60,000,000 dollars.

Unfortunately, not even coal-industry responsibility can guarantee against a collapse. The law only requires that the dams be built to withstand a “25-year rain.” In other words, the largest rainfall over a 25 year average. What happens if there is a “50 year rain?” And what happens when there is an earthquake? There is a major fault line under Appalachia.  And what happens 100 years from now when the earthen dams start to crack?

Coincidentally, the same day that the Tennesee sludge pond collapsed, “Thirty-nine environmental groups are urging president-elect Barack Obama to reject a pending federal rule that will make it easier to dispose of coal combustion waste from power plants in abandoned mines despite risks of water contamination.”

For more information about sludge ponds, visit www.sludgesafety.org.

Thanks for reading.


10 Responses to “Tennessee Dam Collapse an Ominous Reminder for Coal-field Residents”

  1. Update: If you have read MTR round-up #1 on this blog, than you are aware that Santa Clause has been delivering switches and pieces of coal to the TVA for its very unneighborly behavior. As soon as Santa heard about TVAs latest disaster, he rustled up his reindeer and headed to Tenneseee.

    This is a message from him:

    Dear folks,
    The flood that happened this morning at 1am was pretty horrific. Santa flew down there to Harriman at 4pm just as the after work crowds of sightseers were beginning to increase. He met a lady and her daughter that had had their house flooded away as he was passing out flyers and Tennessee Mountain Defender newspapers. He asked how he could help and she said her husband worked for TVA and thought it may cause more problems than help. Santa also learned that only one person or family had shown up at the Red Cross shelter.
    So the media was very weird, most of the stories were happening from the air in helicopters. The little media that was on the ground did not seem very interested that Santa was there to protest TVA. Santa spoke with the Tennessean journalist and photographer and distributed info to them. Santa grabbed a coal ash sludge sample but didn’t see anyone else grabbing samples. He then proceeded back to the other media stronghold on TVA property and blasted them with the bullhorn to make sure that they knew Santa was watching and had seen how naughty TVA had been this year. All of this was caught on video so keep your eyes peeled for the latest Santa update. Santa is headed back down there tomorrow to figure out what else is going on.

    Santa also came up with a list of demands on the sleigh ride to Harriman.

    1. TVA and the State of Tennessee holds multiple public hearings and investigates the bursting coal ash dam.

    2. TVA and the State of Tennessee identifies the locations of all the coal ash, what toxins exist in the coal ash, and how it will be cleaned up and safely disposed of.

    3. TVA provides public disclosure of all existing coal ash ponds and makes sure each pond receives a current inspection by the state of Tennessee.

    4. TVA installs a warning system and provides education for all residents likely to be impacted by any problems with other ash ponds.

    5. TVA completely cleans up and restores the affected properties and water ways.

    6. TVA pays restitution for human suffering involved in the ash pond failure.

    7. TVA establishes a citizen advisory board for all of its operations.

    8. TVA stops burning any coal from surface mines and Mountain Top Removal coal mines.

    9. TVA cuts their emissions of mercury, heavy metals, hydrochloric acid, and sulfuric acid to zero pounds per year.

    10. TVA agrees to not mine for coal in Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area.

    Feel free to contact TVA and forward Santa’s list of demands. Make sure to be polite.
    Corporate Headquarters
    Tennessee Valley Authority
    400 W. Summit Hill Dr.
    Knoxville, TN 37902-1499

  2. Update.
    You can find COMPREHENSIVE coverage of the dam collapse at the Roanoke Times Blog: http://blogs.roanoke.com/rtblogs/newrivernotebook/2008/12/23/coal-ash-tsunami-in-tennessee/

  3. Very important update from Matt Landon:

    Dear folks, (Please repost this email to blogs or news sites)
    Members of United Mountain Defense traveled today down to Harriman, TN to learn more first hand about the impacts of the coal ash pond failure. We traveled on Swan Pond Rd visiting local residents and passing out information about the chemicals that may be present in the drinking water. Begining at 3pm Dec 23, 2008 TVA officials began to visit all of the houses just prior to our visit advising residents to boil their drinking water before consuming it for the next 5 days. Unfortunately TVA did not inform anyone about the reasons for needing to boil the water and any chemicals that may be present in their water. The city of Harriman was working 24 hours a day to install a new water pipe in order to provide these residents with cleaner water. Their current water source was a large spring which may have been contaminated by the spill.

    We also met a man who had been vomitting for the past 12 hours after drinking a couple of pots of coffee made from the tainted water. We advised him to go to the hospital.
    The corporate media has been reporting that affected citizens were being housed in a local motel, but we met many citizens who had spent the last two nights without electricity or gas heat in 27 F weather. A source shared information that TVA knew that the coal ash dam had been leaking for months now. We visited approximately 40 households many of which had not recieved any information other than what they could figure out from the minute long television segments or an isolated phone call from the water or gas utility. TVA police were limiting access to Swan Pond Rd as utility crews were actively working on the roadway.

    United Mountain Defense is actively creating a plan of action to deal with this issue. We plan to go back down to Harriman tomorrow. The work is seeming to fall into a few catagories at this point.
    We want to get more video, get more water samples from wells, springs, faucets, and sludge puddles. We are going to get more familiar with the local area and resources. We want to meet more locals, pass out info, and set up protests. Any suggestions that you have would be greatly appreciated. If you are able to test water samples for heavy metals or other specilized water testing please let us know. We also have an updated list of demands below for TVA since they have been so naughty.

    Check out the Santa Protest Videos http://dirtycoaltva.blogspot.com/

    Visit our website at http://www.unitedmountaindefense.org

    Feel free to send checks for copies, paper, gas and general support funds to
    United Mountain Defense
    P.O. Box 20363
    Knoxville, TN 37920

    Or go to www. United Mountain Defense.org to pay on the Paypal account

    Or at the PayPal account @ https://www.paypal.com/us/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_flow&SESSION=i7SeayH1xgHLmWLkgIXhg5z7CJJJan02PVOxEqHK_Af_MB9CZiWV-juGCcS&dispatch=5885d80a13c0db1f9fecf49521b3f5af727cc8f9db6c1fec0342a4f411eb2d06

    Thank you so much, matt landon full time volunteer staff person United Mountain Defense

  4. Update: Ash Spill much bigger than authorities first claimed.

  5. Another important update follows my comment…

    You know you are in trouble if the Bush EPA reports reason to be alarmed.

    Water testing in two Tennessee rivers below the dam collapse has shown levels of arsenic so high that you don’t even have to drink it to die.

    Though coal-ash contains concentrated levels of arsenic, TVA claims that fish kills are “unrelated” to the spill.

    Meanwhile, members of United Mountain Defense (UMD) have taken their own samples and are looking for an independent lab for testing.

    May this latest tragedy be the death knell for the myth of clean coal!


  6. From Dave Cooper:

    The TVA website is worth a look


    it wasnt a disaster, it was an “ash slide”

    The coal ash material was “displaced”

    The stuff floating on the water is used to make bowling balls!

    And … its “mostly inert” – see http://www.tva.gov/emergency/pdf/Kingston%20Water%20Information%2012-28-08.pdf

    But there is good news too: over 1000 feet of railroad tracks have been cleared so that TVA will have plenty of coal. Whew, thats a relief.

    TN disaster is also on home page of cnn.com


    We (UMD) found out from the expert that we had come speak to last weekends community meeting that there is a window. After around 27 days the arsenic leaves urine. A lab said they could do this an other heavy metal testing. At first the cost was 700 per person–but they brought it down to 500 to help.

    We had 50 people sign up for testing.

    One of our volunteers (Bonnie) just called me in tears. She said “look, I am calling and people are sick, some are so sick that their families are there and answering the phone for them. The ones that know us are telling us the truth–they just lost their land value, there health and some of them everything and there is no way they can come up with that kind of cash.

    We have sick families who cannot pay for the medical testing they need. People who drank out of wells and springs for DAYS while TVA told them to just boil their water.

    If anyone happens to have 500 bucks we can get at least some of the sickest tested. We don’t want to touch a dime you can pay the clinic doing the testing directly. They are taking blood, urine, nail clippings, fecal, hair follicle for heavy metal and arsenic screening.

    Here is what Bonnie wrote.


    I need your help to get funding for the people of
    Harriman to have the toxicity testing done this
    Thursday, January 8th. I have spent the day calling
    people who signed up to get info about the heavy metal
    testing and it is breaking my heart to have to tell
    them that they will be required to pay $500 up front
    and then try to get reimbursed from their insurance
    companies. These people are telling me they feel sick,
    they are worried about their children, and some are
    not available because they are laying down and not
    feeling well. I had several people tell me they can’t
    get the letter I emailed about the testing because
    they are homeless right now because of the TVA

    The people that don’t know me are saying thank you for
    the information and hanging up and the people that I
    have established a relationship with are saying “are
    you crazy I don’t have an extra $500 laying around and
    my lab testing deductable is $700 so I will never get
    reimbursed for this test.”

    Please look for funding so I can tell these people
    something other that we are providing an opportunity
    to them that will just be one more big financial

    Please help,
    Bonnie “

  8. Another TVA dam collapses. This one is in Alabama.


    If there are plans for a coal fired power plant to be constructed in your community, please take heed.

  9. […] comes a few weeks after the disaster  in Harriman, Tennessee. Just like after every other travesty, bureaucrats are promising […]

  10. […] https://amountainjourney.wordpress.com/2008/12/22/tennessee-dam-collapse-an-ominous-reminder-for-coal… Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Global Warming & The U.S. SenateWagoner arrives for Senate hearing in Volt mule […]

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