The coal ash dam broke at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power station on the banks of the Emory River, which feeds into the Clinch River near the confluence of the Tennessee River. Many of the coal ash chunks released from the dam were huge, the size of boulders and icebergs. A map of the area showing the coal plant (fire icon), 40 acre ash storage ponds (grey area), dam breach (thick, red line), derailed coal train (train icon) rivers (wave icons) and flow directions (red arrows) is below (click icons, shaded areas, line and arrows for photos and more information).
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TVA authorities initially issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxins. "Most of that material is inert," said Gilbert Francis Jr., a TVA spokesman. "It does have some heavy metals within it, but it's not toxic or anything."
Residents were told by the TVA to boil their water, but environmentalists warned residents that boiling would not remove the toxic heavy metals. Subsequent testing of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders, said John Moulton, a TVA spokesman. Lead is known to be a potent neurotoxin, and thallium is highly toxic and is used in rat poisons and insecticides.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently performing independent tests of the waterways affected by the spill as well as those upstream of the spill for comparison.
Chemicals and metals from coal ash have contaminated drinking water in several states, made people and animals sick in New Mexico, and tainted fish in Texas and elsewhere, according to Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit national environmental law firm that follows the issue. It's an easy problem to fix, and at the very least should be placed in lined, state-of-the-art landfills, she said.
One Harriman resident expressed concern about the affects on her family's health after breathing the coal ash dust once the water in it dries out. TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said that people should wash their clothes if it gets on them and that the real concern would be for the material to be airborne. That wouldn't happen because it's rainy and damp, he said.
Activists for years have pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal ash, such as this, as a hazardous waste. Jeff Stant, with the Environmental Integrity Project, said ash is the country's second-largest industrial waste stream, after mining wastes. "EPA has shirked its responsibility to do something about this for years. The law says EPA has to manage the wastes in a way to make sure they don't pose any imminent danger to health and the environment. EPA has failed to do that." This is not the first time that the EPA has been slow to deal with Coal-related hazards detrimental to public health and the environment.
The EPA needs to take bold action on hazardous coal ash waste and this environmental disaster. EPA needs to ensure a rapid and safe cleanup of the coal ash spill, and to regulate coal ash storage now. EPA must Protect the public from potential health risks and Protect the Environment, including property and homes (see photo, below). That's their job! Let the Obama Transition Team know how you feel about this environmental disaster by sending them an e-mail message: Click Here.