Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Even after a wall of toxic coal sludge roiled through her lakeside neighborhood, Linda Tarwater considered herself lucky: her home, unlike those of some neighbors, wasn’t washed away. But then came all the talk about contamination, of toxins locked inside the muddy mixture of water and coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning.
“When they told us everything that was in that ash, I was shocked,” she says. “They say the ash has all these toxins, yet the TVA says there’s no danger.”
The Tennessee Valley Authority is the federally funded electric utility that produced the ash, mixed it with water and stored it inside a forty-acre holding pond at a plant in Kingston, Tennessee, some forty miles west of Knoxville. On December 22 an earthen dike collapsed, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of the muddy waste, which knocked houses off foundations and poured into the Tennessee River basin, which feeds municipal drinking-water systems. TVA and EPA officials scrambled to test drinking water, quickly assuring residents that all was safe. Since then, TVA surface-water tests have consistently shown little to no threat of contamination downstream. Despite these assurances, the largest industrial spill in American history has become the emblem of an industry run amok, of regulatory failures and of a controversial effort to depict coal as a benign energy source.
“This spill is the argument against ‘clean coal,'” says Dan Volz, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s been a nationwide campaign by the coal industry to promote the use of clean coal. But clean coal is an oxymoron.” Volz says it’s true that new technologies can limit atmospheric emissions. “But the law of conservation of matter means that the toxins that don’t go into the air simply get transferred to wastewater and coal ash,” he says. “If a toxin is in a lump of coal and you burn it, it has to go somewhere.”
Millions of tons of coal ash–laden with toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium and mercury–are produced each year. A large percentage of the dry ash is sold to companies as an industrial ingredient to make products like cement, concrete and mulch. But a lack of federal regulation and the patchwork nature of state laws mean utilities are all but free to decide what to do with the ash. “Unfortunately, the cheapest way to dispose of coal ash is to mix it with water and dump it into unlined lagoons,” says Ben Dunham, associate legislative director of Earthjustice. There are more than 1,300 dumps across the country like the one that failed in Tennessee. And most, experts say, fall under little or no regulation. Even though the ash contains toxins the EPA has determined are dangerous for drinking water and public health, the agency has twice declined to declare ash a hazardous waste. As a result, there has been no federal regulation of coal ash and little monitoring of groundwater, which studies show can become contaminated through leaching. “For years, utilities have been largely free to do what they want,” says Kert Davies, a research director at Greenpeace.