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Toxic deposits at plant in coal ash spill

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The aftermath of a retention pond wall collapse at the Kingston Fossil Plant, Tennessee.
The aftermath of a retention pond wall collapse at the Kingston Fossil Plant, Tennessee.

Shaila Dewan

In a single year, a coal-fired electric plant deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic materials in a holding pond that failed last week, flooding 300 acres in East Tennessee, according to a 2007 inventory filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The inventory, disclosed by the Tennessee Valley Authority on Monday at the request of The New York Times, showed that 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 TVA plant 64 km west of Knoxville, contained many decades’ worth of these deposits.

For days, TVA officials have maintained that the sludge released in the spill is not toxic, though coal ash has long been known to contain dangerous concentrations of heavy metals.

On Monday, a week after the spill, the authority issued a joint statement with the EPA and other agencies recommending that direct contact with the ash be avoided and that pets and children should be kept away from affected areas.

Residents complained that the authority had been slow to issue information about the contents of the ash and the water, soil and sediment samples taken in and around the spill.

“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, sullied by sludge from the spill. “It took five days for the TVA to respond to us.”

Richard W. Moore, inspector general of the authority, said he would open an investigation into the cause of the spill, the adequacy of the response, and how to prevent spills from similar landfills at other TVA plants, according to a report in The Knoxville News Sentinel.

Elevated levels of lead and thallium and what the Environmental Protection Agency called “very high” levels of arsenic have been found in water samples taken near the site of the spill.

Though the EPA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the TVA have spoken daily about their efforts to monitor air, soil and water quality, complete results have been released for only two samples, both taken from a drinking water intake site that is actually upstream of the spill. The water there met drinking standards.

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 travelling downstream. Officials do not have an estimate of the cost of the cleanup or how long it will take, said a spokeswoman, Catherine Mackey.

The spill has reignited a debate over whether coal ash should be regulated as a hazardous waste.

In 2000, the EPA backed away from its recommendation to do so in the face of industry opposition, promising instead to issue national guidelines for proper ash disposal, though it never did. — New York Times News Service


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