TVA to Begin Coal Ash Spill Cleanup March 20

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Glynn Wilson
A coal ash island visible in the Emory River with the smokestacks of TVA’s coal fired power plant at Kingston, Tennessee in the background.

by Glynn Wilson

KINGSTON, Tenn. — Steve Scarborough came to East Tennessee from Georgia for the scenic boating and stayed to raise a family and start his own canoe building company, Dagger Kayaks and Canoes. But on Dec. 22, the longest night of 2008, his world was turned upside down when an embankment wall caved at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal fired power plant here, causing the largest environmental disaster of its kind in U.S. history.

Heavy rains, freezing temperatures, and potentially a minor earthquake a few days before, caused the holding pond for TVA’s coal ash waste to fail, dumping 2.6 million cubic yards of the mildly toxic material into the middle of the scenic Emory River.

Tests of the river water around the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders. But levels of toxicity are not that dangerous and not the main issue, Scarborough said. The event was not just a spill of a hazardous substance, like many environmental disasters in the past, like the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

Glynn Wilson
A six mile long land mass of coal ash where the most vibrant and biologically diverse stretch of the Emory River used to be.

To read the full investigative news feature with more of the story and videos, visit our sister site, The Locust Fork News-Journal.