Five year since Kingston: A December to Remember

Guest Blog | January 9, 2014 | Coal, Energy Policy

This opinion piece was written by Ulla Reeves, SACE’s High Risk Energy Program Director, and was published in the Knoxville News Sentinel on December 22, 2014. This is the final post in a five part series commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Kingston coal ash disaster, highlighting communities throughout the Southeast impacted by coal ash and its detrimental effects. Read the rest of this series here.

One of the homes inundated with coal ash sludge during the Kingston disaster.

Five years ago today, residents of the Swan Pond area of Roane County woke up to a Christmas nightmare: a billion-gallon wave of coal ash sludge from the Kingston Fossil Plant turned their homes, properties and the nearby Clinch and Emory Rivers into a toxic wasteland.

In a few hours, a community and more than 300 acres of surrounding aquatic habitat were forever altered. Sadly, Kingston wasn’t a freak accident; this tragic event resulted from years of neglect and inaction on the part of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the government agencies tasked with protecting the public and our environment.

It’s important to understand that the Kingston disaster didn’t have to happen, and despite initial promises from the Environmental Protection Agency to swiftly address the lack of federal coal ash regulation, we are still waiting for adequate oversight. As a result, our nation’s second-largest industrial waste stream remains less regulated than the items in your household garbage can.

In the aftermath of the Kingston disaster, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson promised the agency would regulate the waste by the end of 2009. In 2010, EPA proposed two regulatory options. The agency appeared poised to make good on it promise. But industry interests and insider politics have successfully obstructed progress on these much-needed safeguards, and we’ve seen multiple Congressional efforts to block EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash altogether.

More than 118 billion gallons of toxic coal ash are still scattered across the Southeast in 450 dump sites, many as structurally inadequate as Kingston’s, threatening other homes, lives and communities. “Baby breaches” happen more frequently than you might realize — few heard about the 10,000 gallons of coal ash slurry that escaped TVA’s Widows Creek impoundment in Alabama just weeks after Kingston’s catastrophic failure. Worse still, we now know from a growing body of evidence that structural problems are just one of many that we face from coal ash.

During the Kingston clean up, train cars were loaded with ash sludge bound for disposal in an unlined landfill in Perry County, Alabama. Photo by: Miles Cary

Coal ash sludge reads like a “who’s who” of toxic heavy metals, many of which are carcinogenic. Exposure to or ingestion of these metals is highly dangerous for humans and wildlife. While TVA loudly proclaimed that coal ash was “just like dirt,” in reality the beleaguered Swan Pond community was covered in a toxic layer of arsenic, mercury, selenium, boron, chromium and other heavy metals.

Today the majority of coal ash lagoons still remain unlined, leading to continuous pollution of soil and nearby waters. In fact, a recent Environmental Integrity Project report found on-site groundwater contamination caused by ash impoundments and landfills at all of TVA’s 11 coal plants. While evidence of groundwater contamination is substantial, the full extent is unknown because of gaps in TVA’s data collection and the fact that the utility stopped monitoring at some sites after initial results indicated high levels of contamination.

Lacking state and federal leadership, citizens and concerned groups have defaulted to the courts seeking justice, remediation and protection for communities threatened by coal ash. Environmental and public health groups, including SACE, sued EPA in April 2012 demanding finalized coal ash regulations. So far, EPA has failed to even release a timeline for a finalized rule, meaning June 2014 could be the earliest we see finalized regulations. The need, however, has become even more urgent with the uptick in coal plant retirements. Without requirements for safe closure, coal ash impoundments at retired coal plants will become a toxic legacy, polluting in perpetuity.

Hundreds of Roane County residents still deal with the impacts of that catastrophic coal ash disaster. And communities nationwide still remain at risk of a similar impoundment failure and water contamination as coal ash continues to leach into drinking water, contaminate fish and pollute the air with coal ash dust. Millions are exposed to these dangerous toxins, which put people at higher risk for cancer and other diseases. It’s long past time for EPA to finalize comprehensive, effective and enforceable safeguards from coal ash before another year goes by and before the public gets another lump of coal in their stocking.

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