Five years since Kingston: Communities still waiting for solutions

Guest Blog | November 14, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

Six weeks from now marks the fifth anniversary of the Kingston coal ash disaster, one of the worst environmental catastrophes in American history. In the coming weeks, we will post a series of blogs highlighting communities throughout the Southeast impacted by  coal ash and its detrimental effects. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Sarah McCoin, resident of Swan Pond, Tennessee, who contributed to this post.

Sarah McCoin lives a mile and half from the Kingston spill site, and has first hand experience of the destruction it caused. Photo: Earthjustice

Five years ago when a coal ash dam at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant failed, releasing a one billion gallon wave of coal ash, the nation learned about the widespread threat this hazardous waste poses to communities and the environment. Many were shocked to learn of the lack of federal regulations for coal combustion wastes and the common utility practice of dumping coal ash into massive unlined lagoons. Thus began the public outcry for safeguards protecting public health and the environment from these reckless practices.

At that time, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson pledged to advance regulation and in 2009 the agency issued a proposed rule to designate coal ash as hazardous waste. But five years later we are no closer to coal ash regulations, as the utility industry continues fighting to keep a rule from being finalized. In the meantime, hundreds of communities are still at risk of catastrophic dam failures like the one at Kingston, and are exposed daily to heavy metals and other toxics from the ash as they leach into drinking water, contaminate the fish we eat and pollute the air with coal ash dust; putting people at higher risk for cancer and other diseases.

Sarah McCoin lives a little over a mile from the Kingston, Tennessee plant and saw the destruction caused by the disaster first hand. The flood of ash spared her home and farm that’s been in her family for generations, but destroyed the road leading to her property, her community, and the surrounding environment. In June 2013 Bob Deacy,  TVA Senior Vice President of Generation Construction said that the clean up effort is close to “restoring the area to a condition that is good as or better than it was before the spill“. (Note: TVA likes to refer to the disaster as a mere “spill” – we think it was more major than that – a full scale environmental disaster.)

But for Sarah McCoin, the disaster and its lingering effects are still, and will always be, felt in her community:

Our community has been forever changed. But it didn’t have to be this way. America and the world have the resources available to improve our environment; it is our political game of financial incentives provided by corporations who have one goal in mind—the fastest, most cost effective methods for producing a profit—which limits such quality improvements.

Today, the coal ash recovery continues. Yes, Tennessee Valley Authority has worked diligently, but the people of Swan Pond still deal with the remnants of the disaster on a daily basis. There are environmental warning signs placed within a mile of my home and farm, and my relatives and friends often discuss the long term damage our lungs and bodies will experience due to the disaster. Our waterways appear clear, yet the EPA have allowed TVA to leave remaining coal ash at the bottom of the rivers as not to disturb legacy containments.

When elected officials are politically motivated and not safety motivated, the general public and nature are the victims. It’s time for the administration and EPA to start listening and act—instead of listening and doing nothing.

We couldn’t agree more with Ms. McCoin. While TVA has worked to clean up some of the ash disaster, it’s not enough – see our blog earlier this year that details the clean-up response and the concerns we have.

During the short term clean-up, scheduled to complete by November 2014, more than 3.5 million cubic yards of ash have been removed from Emory River and shipped to a landfill in Perry County, AL; an unlined, unregulated landfill located next door to low-income and minority communities. The coal ash in the uncovered Perry County landfill has piled as high as 60 feet, spreading dangerous dust and pollution to nearby homes. The long term plan for ash remaining in the river is called “monitored natural recovery”–which means tons of ash will be left in the river to be covered up by natural processes.

It’s high time for sensible, science-based regulations that protect communities, precious water resources, and wildlife from coal ash pollution. Tell your representatives in Congress and EPA know that we’ve waited long enough, that its time to stop the delays and finalize a coal ash rule before our nation experiences another Kingston.

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