This is the third in a series of investigative reports on the fallout from the Tennessee coal ash spill. Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
For years, residents of the tiny lakeside community near Kingston, Tennessee, watched as the local power plant mixed tons of leftover coal ash with water and pumped the heavy mud into a massive pond just up the road. “We never gave it a second thought,” says resident Diane Anderson.
But on December 22 the pond collapsed, triggering a billion-gallon mudslide that knocked houses off foundations and roiled into the Emory River. State officials and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally funded utility responsible for the spill, scrambled to allay fears, saying that the ash wasn’t toxic and that the drinking water was safe. But residents also heard about the litany of harmful substances in the ash, like arsenic and lead, and about studies linking it to cancer.
An investigation into the accident reveals layers of failures: the Tennessee state government didn’t control how the TVA handled its ash waste, and the Environmental Protection Agency failed to heed its own scientific warning about coal ash hazards. It shows how the Obama administration has moved to fill in where past administrations have left a void, including, in one case, releasing a study linking coal ash to health problems that was supressed by the Bush administration. Ultimately, the spill reveals the toxic fallacy that states rather than the federal government should tell big power companies how to manage a gargantuan and largely unregulated stream of industrial waste.
The Tennessee Example
The Emory River flows off Frozen Head Mountain, moving westward through eastern Tennessee coal country, then taking a southwestward course before issuing into the Clinch River. The rivers’ keeper, The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), is charged with watching over the TVA’s management of the failed pond. “We’re all angry at TVA, but we’re just as mad at the state. They shouldn’t have let this happen,” said Penny Dodson, a registered nurse whose property was covered by ash.
She’s not alone. Chris Irwin, an attorney with the group United Mountain Defense, says the state failed hugely. TDEC officials “did not protect or conserve Tennessee’s environment at all,” he told me in an e-mail. “They had a role in the oversight and regulation of the ash dam and now we are supposed to trust that an agency which failed in preventing the disaster will succeed in fixing it.”
How did the state fail?
For starters, TDEC did not ensure that the TVA had conducted the right kinds of engineering tests to see if the pond was structurally sound (something TVA CEO Tom Kilgore stated before the US Senate). And in December, an official at Tennessee’s wildlife agency told me that TDEC had failed to make the authority closely monitor changes in the hydrological pressure caused by the shifting mountain of ash that put pressure on the failed retaining wall. TDEC spokesperson Meg Lockhart said in a written response to questions that the agency relied on information provided by the TVA, as it does with all entities it regulates. “That is standard practice across the country,” she said, adding that environmental regulatory agencies “simply do not have the resources to independently re-conduct engineering studies.”