Letting the Coal Ash Settle: The Kingston Disaster 4 Years Later

Guest Blog | December 21, 2012 | Coal, Energy Policy


Just before 1 a.m. on Monday, December 22, 2008, TVA’s coal ash impoundment at its Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, TN ruptured and spilled 1.1 billion gallons (5.4 million cubic yards) of toxic coal ash into the surrounding community and waterways – covering more than 300 acres of land and water.  After the dust (or ash as it were) settled, families were left without homes and the ecological systems in the Emory and Clinch Rivers were devastated.  It was clear that a massive cleanup effort would be needed if the community and the surrounding environment had any hopes of returning to full health.  Now, four years later, it appears that not all of the ash will be cleaned up due to pre-existing contamination in the river that may be even more dangerous than the coal ash itself.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency became the lead agency overseeing remediation efforts and river dredging activities, under a 2009 Administrative Order on Consent with TVA under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).  EPA’s Administrative Order identified both short and long-term cleanup actions, which included removing ash from the Emory River by mechanical and hydraulic dredging.  During the short term cleanup efforts, more than 3.5 million cubic yards of ash were removed from the Emory River and shipped to a landfill in Perry County, Alabama.  In theory, and if the math works out right, that leaves almost 2 million cubic yards of ash waiting to be cleaned up.

So how does TVA plan to deal with the remaining coal ash?  It turns out, they are counting on nature to help in the cleanup process and you might be surprised to hear us say it, but it might just be that mother nature is the best person for the job.  On November 7, 2012, both EPA and TDEC signed off on TVA’s Phase 3 cleanup plan – known as “Monitored Natural Recovery” – which would rely on natural river processes to dispose or cover up the remaining coal ash in the Clinch and Emory Rivers.  The decision to adopt a monitored natural recovery plan for the remaining coal ash was based on a two-year, $40 million study.

At first blush, it seems that TVA is taking the easy way out by not attempting to dredge the remaining coal ash and remove it from the waterways, because it is the least costly and least intrusive plan.  But the plan was accepted by state and federal regulators and also supported by a majority of the community members around the Kingston coal plant.  Why is everyone okay with letting nature take its course?  The answer takes us all the way back to the 1950s, to a little place called Oak Ridge, TN.

As early as 1949, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Reservation, the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Oak Ridge K-25 Site released Cesium-137 and mercury as part of operations and waste disposal activities into local streams that ultimately drain into the Clinch River and the Watts Bar Reservoir System.  The highest amount of discharges from Oak Ridge occurred in the mid-1950s and early 1960s in association with nuclear energy research at ORNL and weapons components production at the Y-12 Plant. (See chart at end of blog for release data between 1940-1970.)  Cesium-137 is a radionuclide, meaning that exposure to it results in an increased risk of cancer.  Exposure to mercury can result in neurological damage and causes severe birth defects in children born to women exposed to mercury.

The long-ago discharges of these toxic materials have left the sediment of both the Clinch River and the Watts Bar Reservoir highly contaminated.  In fact, approximately 1.5 miles of the Emory River were not even dredged under the first phase of TVA’s Kingston ash cleanup due to the fear of stirring up the legacy chemicals in the river’s sediment (see bottom of page 2 in Phase 3 memo).  In the 1990s, DOE undertook a comprehensive waste management and environmental restoration effort to address the releases of hazardous substances from the Oak Ridge and assess the amount of contamination still present in the sediment.  This study found that almost 91% of the total cesium-137 released into the waterways from Oak Ridge and 76 metric tons of mercury have been retained by accumulation in the reservoir sediments.  In light of the persistence of these chemicals, a significant amount of cesium-137 and mercury still remains at the bottom of the reservoir and is at risk of being resuspended in the water if it is disturbed by any further dredging activities.

So it seems that TVA and those of us in the environmental community are stuck between a rock and a hard place – or stuck between radioactive chemicals and coal ash.  It’s always a shame when more recent pollution is allowed to stay in place because of some prior contamination, but sometimes it is the lesser of two evils.  Although TVA was recently found liable for the Kingston spill, their response to the spill has been aggressive and came with a $43 million payout to the Roane County Economic Development Foundation for use by communities in the affected area.  Under the natural recovery plan, TVA must monitor the remaining ash in more than 200 acres of the affected rivers over the next 30 years.  This type of long term monitoring also comes with a hefty price tag – $10 million.

One of the more disappointing take-aways from this story is that, as a nation, we still have no federal regulations governing how coal ash is to be stored – despite the promise of federal regulations since the Kingston disaster four years ago.  We cannot afford to wait any longer on these regulations.  The Southeast alone is home to 21 of the nation’s 45 “High Hazard” ash impoundments. Check out the new SoutheastCoalAsh.org website to find out more about coal ash impoundments in the region!


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