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.