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This is an archived story. The information and any links may no longer be accurate.

12/24/2008 06:47 AM     print story email story  

Environmental Disaster in Tennessee - Coal Ash Spill

SustainableBusiness.com News

An environmental disaster unfolding in Tennessee is a stark reminder of the prices we pay for reliance on coal-based power in the U.S. 

Early Monday morning a retaining wall collapsed at the Tennesse Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant near Knoxville, Tennessee, releasing 2.6 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash across hundreds of acres--damaging 11 homes and ultimately endangering the Tennessee River watershed.

Pictures from the scene show a house buried up to its first-story windows in dark sludge.

Bulldozers, dump trucks, and backhoes have been brought to the site to begin cleaning up the fly ash, which is roughly six feet deep and contains mercury, lead and arsenic.

The Knoxville Sentinel News reported that from above it's obvious that the Emory River is being dirtied by the spill. The Emory leads to the Clinch, which flows into the Tennessee.

Workers reportedly are testing water sampled from the rivers. Other reports state that dead fish have already begun washing up on the banks, but the danger is not limited to aquatic life.

A December report in Scientific American stated that "fly ash emitted by a power plant-a by-product from burning coal for electricity-carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy."* (Link to that report below.) As airborne polution, the radiation poses a slim risk to human health according to the article, However in a concentrated spill the threat to water sources becomes more serious.

Clean up is expected to take several weeks, by which time ground water and surface water could be seriously contaminated.

Wendy Redal, at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism, said the spill  is "nearly 50 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989."

"This holiday disaster shows that there really isn't such a thing as a clean coal plant," said Chandra Taylor, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The United States Environmental Protection Agency should immediately establish national safeguards for the disposal of coal wastes and enforceable regulations," said Taylor. "At a minimum, these safeguards should include siting restrictions, structural requirements and long-term financial assurance to clean up any resulting pollution."

Please share your comments.

*Editor's note: the sentence marked with an asterisk has been changed, and the sentence following the asterisk has been added. The Scientific American article was changed on 12/30/08 after the publication of this story. The original sentence read "A report last December in Scientific American stated that several studies show coal fly ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste." 

Website: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste



Reader Comments (9)

Author:
Jason Sterlace

Date Posted:
12/24/08 11:03 PM

Fly ash is NOT more radioactive than nuclear waste. No studies have said that it is, and the body of the Scientific American article you linked refutes the sensationalist headline of that same article. The actual study says that shielding at nuclear power plants is so good that people living nearby get less radioactive exposure than they would from coal plants, which are unshielded because they add less than 1% to background radiation. Please, read the very article you linked. The situation in Tennessee is bad enough that it doesn't need any falsehoods heaped on top of it.

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Author:
Tim Mooring

Date Posted:
12/26/08 05:59 PM

The article at: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste seems to disagree with Jason's assertion. Adding mercury, lead and other dangerous contaminants to the mix would seem to indicate that fly ash is really toxic stuff. Google is a free service at www.google.com

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Author:
Tim Mooring

Date Posted:
12/26/08 06:25 PM

My apologies to Jason for not reading the article more closely. Still, after reading more carefully (following my own snide advice) it does seem that there's a consensus that radioactivity can vary by a factor of 10 depending on the origin of the burned coal. Jason is correct according to USGS information. My Bad.

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Author:
Mark Benner

Date Posted:
12/27/08 12:34 AM

I am suprised there are not already exisitng regulations regarding coal waste disposal, and the conditions under which it is stored or maintained. It is pretty well established that coal, and coal ash contains toxins - specifically heavey metls - 8 years ago a similar accident occured in kentucky - has anyone discussed or reported why the retaining wall collapsed? Or who is responsible beyond the TVA or in the kentucky case the private company running the plant, of conditions and regulations on maintaining these sites? I have yet to see any information in that regard. Secondly i think it is amazing that anyone refers to clean coal as an existing concept - i thought it was pretty well established that the idea of clean coal was a future conditon or goal not an exisiting one.

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Author:
Rona

Date Posted:
12/29/08 01:37 PM

Bush has done his best to unravel our environmental laws - it's a miracle we have any left. I find it hard to imagine that blowing off the top of a mountain for easy access to coal is allowable. If that weren't bad enough, Bush eased the rules on what coal companies have to do with that waste - now it can all flow right into the rivers!

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Author:
Annie

Date Posted:
12/30/08 03:07 PM

I worked as a contract technical writer for Wisconsin Electric while they were developing a use for coal’s fly ash. In the 1990s, engineers created a mix of coal fly ash, municipal wastewater sludge, and paper mill sludge that was converted to an environmentally inert lightweight aggregate suitable for use in concrete products and in geotechnical, landscaping and asphalt-paving applications, or any application requiring stone, sand or gravel. Named Minergy LWATM, the stone-like end product was invented by subsidiaries of Wisconsin Energy Corporation specifically to deal with waste products and was used in a broad range of concrete products and geotechnical applications between 1994 and 2000. The Minergy LWA manufacturing process had numerous environmental benefits: · Burying fly ash and sludge in landfills was no longer needed · Raw material extraction to create similar building materials was greatly reduced · The ash and sludge actually provided most of the fuel needed for the combustion part of the conversion from waste product to the stone-like end product. · All organic compounds in the fly ash and sludge were destroyed in the combustion process · Analysis of the heat-hardened aggregate showed that the leachate meets federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards I do not have any information about the radioactivity of the aggregate, but used in building materials, it shouldn’t be any worse than other products mined from the ground.

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Author:
jea724

Date Posted:
03/10/11 04:34 AM

Coal Ash can actually be used fuel for a Plasma Arc Power Plant. It should be mandated by state legislatures to build Portable Plasma Arc Power Plants to use up and eliminate this Coal Ash Waste. Also, Georgia Tech and CERL are the American Pioneers in this Technology – http://www.cecer.army.mil POC: Dr. Ed Smith Commercial 217-373-3488 or 800-usa-cerl – Georgia Tech POC: DR. Louie J. Circeo Comm 404-894-2070 or Construction Research Center (CRC), Georgia Institute of Tech, Atlanta, GA 30332-0159. This is proven technology which has been used by Japan since the 1990s with the contrustion of over 20 plants.

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Author:
jea724

Date Posted:
01/02/12 02:05 AM

Hurlburt Field, Florida, USA (PyroGenesis Canada Inc.)On April 26, 2011, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the official opening of its Transportable Plasma Waste to Energy System (TPWES) facility, located at Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton Beach Florida, USA. The facility was designed, constructed and commissioned by Montreal-based PyroGenesis Canada Inc., and the unit deployed at the facility is based on the company’s Plasma Resource Recovery System (PRRS) technology. The plant is designed to process 10.5 metric tons per day of municipal solid waste, as well as hazardous and biomedical waste. The syngas generated by the process is fed to an internal combustion engine to produce electricity, while the inorganic fraction of the waste feed is converted into an inert, vitrified slag which can be used for building materials. The system is designed to be energy neutral and transportable to allow the Air Force the flexibility to potentially deploy it other bases around the world, including forward operating bases. [11]

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Author:
MUDMAN

Date Posted:
09/18/12 12:05 AM

I HAD THE HONOR OF WORKING AT ONE OF THEIR NUKE PLANTS NEAR CHATTANOOGA TENN. IT WAS A GOOD JOB AN NUCLEAR POWER IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO FOR THE FUTURE OF POWER IN THIS COUNTRY . WHY WE ARENT BUILDING MORE IS A PRIME EXAMPLE OF GOVERMENTAL IGNORANCE IN THIS COUNTRY GONE WILD. COAL FIRE PLANTS ARE FAR MORE HARMFUL TO THE ENVIROMENT THAN NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS.ASK THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA WHAT IT DID TO THE GREAT SMOKEY MTNS?. WE'VE COME A LONG WAY FROM 3 MI ISLAND IN TECHNOLOGY . A PRESENT DAY NUCLEAR PLANT DESIGN IS A MARVEL IN AMERICAN TECHNOLOGY AN BUILDING DESIGN . BUILDING MORE WOULD PLACE ALOT OF GOOD CRAFTMEN INTO A GOOD PAYING JOBS. I WISH THEYD START BUILDING NUKE PLANTS AGAIN!

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