Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill
The TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill occurred just before 1 a.m. on Monday December 22, 2008, when an ash dike ruptured at an 84-acre (0.34 km2) solid waste containment area at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, releasing 1.1 billion US gallons (4,200,000 m3) of coal fly ash slurry. The coal-fired power plant, located across the Clinch River from the city of Kingston, uses ponds to dewater the fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, which is then stored in wet form in dredge cells. The slurry (a mixture of fly ash and water) traveled across the Emory River and its Swan Pond embayment, on to the opposite shore, covering up to 300 acres (1.2 km2) of the surrounding land, damaging homes and flowing up and down stream in nearby waterways such as the Emory River and Clinch River (tributaries of the Tennessee River). It was the largest fly ash release in United States history.
The Kingston Fossil Plant is located on a peninsula at the junction of the Emory River (to the north) and Clinch River (to the south and east), just over 4 miles (6.4 km) upstream from the latter's mouth along the Tennessee River. Watts Bar Dam, located along the Tennessee 38 miles (61 km) downstream from the mouth of the Clinch, impounds a reservoir (Watts Bar Lake) that spans a 72-mile (116 km) stretch of the Tennessee (to Fort Loudoun Dam), the lower 23 miles (37 km) of the Clinch (to Melton Hill Dam), and the lower 12 miles (19 km) of the Emory. The plant, originally known as the Kingston Steam Plant, began operations in 1954, primarily to provide electricity to atomic energy installations at nearby Oak Ridge. The plant contains nine units with a combined generating capacity of 1,398 megawatts, and burns about 14,000 tonnes (14,000,000 kg) of coal every day.
The plant's ash pond disposal area is located immediately north of the plant along the Emory River shore. The 84-acre (0.34 km2) unlined aboveground ash fill, which was situated 60 feet (18 m) above the ash pond and 74 feet (23 m) above the Emory River winter level, 741 feet (226 m) above sea level, contained a watery slurry of fly ash generated by the burning of finely ground coal at the steam power plant. Fly ash is the fine particulate pollutants produced by the combustion of coal, which are collected rather than allowing them to escape into the atmosphere, then mixed with water so they can be pumped into the retaining pond. Once the particulate matter settles out, it is dredged to drying cells. The dredge cell was surrounded by 60-foot (18 m) tall earthen walls. The dike breach occurred at the northwest corner of the dredge cell area, overlooking the Swan Pond Creek spillway.
TVA had reportedly known about the dangers of using wet storage ponds for coal ash since a 1969 spill in Virginia in which coal ash seeped into the Clinch River and killed countless fish. In the 1980s, TVA engineers raised concerns about the stability of ash ponds. The utility repeatedly found leaks in levees and seepage in the soil at many of their ash ponds, including the ones at Kingston. However, TVA continued to make small repairs instead of switch to dry storage systems which would have cost ratepayers tens of millions. At the time of the disaster, TVA was using wet storage at six of their 11 coal-fired power plants.
Leaks at the Kingston ash ponds had reportedly been taking place since the early 1980s, and local residents said that the spill was not a unique occurrence. The 1960s-era pond had been observed leaking and being repaired nearly every year since 2001. The two worst leaks occurred in 2003 and 2006 in which TVA suspended all ash deposits in the ponds to allow the dredge cells to dry out and stabilize. An October 2008 inspection report had identified a "minor leak" in the faulty wall, but the report was not finalized.
The spill began sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on December 22, 2008, and occurred over the course of approximately one hour in consecutive waves of breaking away and sliding. TVA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initially estimated that the spill released 1.7 million cubic yards (1.3 million m³) of sludge, which is gray in color. After an aerial survey, the official estimate was more than tripled to 5.4 million cubic yards (4 million m³) on December 25, 2008. The spill covered surrounding land with up to six feet (1.8 m) of sludge.
Although the land surrounding the power plant is largely rural rather than residential, the spill caused a mudflow wave of water and ash that covered 12 homes, pushing one entirely off its foundation, rendering three uninhabitable, and caused some damage to 42 residential properties. It also washed out a road, ruptured a major gas line, obstructed a rail line, downed trees, broke a water main, and destroyed power lines. Though 22 residences were evacuated, nobody was reported to be injured or in need of hospitalization. It was the largest coal-related slurry spill in United States history, more than three times the size of the Martin County sludge spill of 2000, which spilled 306 million US gallons (1,160,000 m3) of liquid coal waste. The 1.1 billion US gallons (4,200,000 m3) of sludge were enough to fill 1,660 Olympic-size swimming pools, and the volume released was about 101 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. On December 23, 2008, a TVA spokesman, Gil Francis Jr., stated that, at the time of the spill, the area contained about 2.6 million cubic yards (2.2 million m³) of ash, and that two-thirds of that had been released, which would later be found to cover an area of 300 acres (1.2 km2). The New York Times noted that the amount spilled was larger than the amount stated to have been in the pond before the spill, a discrepancy the TVA was unable to explain. The containment area affected was one of three; the other two stayed intact, while only the retaining wall for the 84-acre (0.34 km2) solid waste containment area was affected.
The spill killed a "tremendous" number of fish, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Although residents feared water contamination, early tests of water six miles (10 km) upstream of the ash flow showed that the public water supply met drinking water standards. A test of river water near the spill showed elevated levels of lead and thallium, and "barely detectable" levels of mercury and arsenic. On January 1, 2009 the first independent test results, conducted at the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry laboratories at Appalachian State University, showed significantly elevated levels of toxic metals (including arsenic, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium) in samples of slurry and river water.
Engineering firm AECOM was hired by TVA to investigate the cause of the spill. A report released in June 2009 identified the main cause of the spill as the result the slippage of an unstable layer of fine wet coal ash underneath the pond. The report also identified other factors including the terraced retaining walls on top of the wet ash, which narrowed the area for storing the ash and in turn increased the pressure exerted on the dike by the rising stacks. The Kingston Fossil Plant received a total of 6.48 inches (16.46 cm) of rain between December 1 and December 22, plus 1.16 inches (2.95 cm) on November 29 and 30. This rain combined with 12 °F (−11 °C) temperatures were identified by TVA as factors that contributed to the failure of the earthen embankment.
TVA spokesman Gil Francis Jr. said that the TVA was "taking steps to stabilize runoff from this incident." In response to a video that showed dead fish on the Clinch River, which had received runoff from the spill, he stated "in terms of toxicity, until an analysis comes in, you can't call it toxic." He continued by saying that "it does have some heavy metals within it, but it's not toxic or anything." Chandra Taylor, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called this statement irresponsible, and stated that coal fly ash contains concentrated amounts of mercury, arsenic, and benzene. She added, "These things are naturally occurring, but they concentrate in the burning process and the residual is more toxic than it starts." Nevertheless, due to pressure exerted in 2000 by utilities, the coal industry, and Clinton administration officials, fly ash is not strictly regulated as a toxic pollutant by the EPA. Residents and environmental groups expressed concern that the fly ash slurry could become more dangerous once it dries out, but have as yet received no information about this from the TVA. On January 1, 2009, the TVA disseminated a fact sheet stating that the ash is "not hazardous."
Meanwhile, the EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation awaited the results of soil and water testing to judge their response, while the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency indicated that barriers would be constructed to stop the ash from reaching the Tennessee River. By early on December 24, 2008, a flyover by The New York Times did note repair work being done on the nearby railroad, which had been obstructed when 78,000 cubic yards (60,000 m3) of sludge covered tracks. By the afternoon of that day, dump trucks were being used to deposit rock into the Clinch River to prevent the further downstream contamination. The TVA had also slowed river flow, for the same purpose. The slurry that was cleared from Swan Pond Road was brought back to one of the plant's intact containment ponds. By December 30, 2008, the TVA had announced it was requesting the assistance of the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the ash-filled Emory River to restore navigation. On January 1, 2009 the TVA announced that rather than attempting to clear away all the slurry, they would be spraying seed, straw, and mulch on top of much of it, "to combat dust and erosion".
Lisa Evans, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice (headquartered in Oakland, CA), spoke out against the government, accusing them of lax regulations on the issue. She also blamed the industry for ineffective safeguards, citing other similar cases. She stated that "The saddest thing is this is entirely avoidable. These people in these communities don't have to be in harm's way. This is not some complicated problem like nuclear waste. This is something the utilities know how to do." Thomas J. FitzGerald, the director of the environmental group Kentucky Resources Council and an expert on coal waste, told The New York Times that the ash should have been buried in lined landfills to prevent toxins leaching into the soil and groundwater (as recommended in a 2006 EPA report), and stated that "I find it difficult to comprehend that the State of Tennessee would have approved that as a permanent disposal site." Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, on-site the week of the spill, acknowledged that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which regulates coal disposal, may have relied too much on TVA's own inspections and engineering studies about the ash ponds and dredge cells. "Believe me, there will be a full-bore look at this to understand the causes of this thing and to try to make sure it never happens again," he said. Concern has also been expressed by environmental groups and local residents that no warnings were issued to residents living in the area about the potential dangers of the site. On December 27, 2008 the TVA issued a list of precautions to residents, but did not provide information about specific levels of toxic materials in the ash, although Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Chris Irwin of United Mountain Defense told The Tennessean newspaper that they believe the TVA knows what is in it, due to the TVA having tested it prior to the spill. The TVA released an inventory of the plant's byproducts on December 29, 2008; it included arsenic, lead, barium, chromium, and manganese. Because the pond contained decades worth of ash from coal of several different types, it is believed that the area of the spill may contain "hot spots" of higher toxicity.
In response to independent attempts at sampling of the water quality and the taking of photos, the TVA illegally detained, for approximately one hour, two members of the Knoxville, Tennessee-based environmental organization United Mountain Defense who were traversing public land in the area of the spill, and cited three other individuals, warning them that any attempt to enter the public waterway again would lead to prosecution.
TVA president Tom Kilgore said that, in light of the spill, the Authority would consider switching the Kingston plant over to "dry" byproduct methods, which would reduce the chances of another spill. Five TVA-operated plants use this method, while Kingston and another five use a "wet" process. The power plant continues to operate, with waste being sent to one of the two remaining intact containment ponds.
On December 26, 2008 the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation stated that it was satisfied with the water quality in the wake of the spill but that it will continue to examine and deal with the potential for chronic health effects. Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen toured the spill site on December 31, 2008. The U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the TVA, held a hearing on January 8 to examine the disaster. The environmental activist Erin Brockovich was invited to Tennessee to survey the disaster site, and announced plans to visit during the second week of January 2009.
At her Senate confirmation hearing on January 14, 2009, Lisa P. Jackson, Barack Obama's choice to head the EPA under his administration, stated her intention to immediately review coal ash disposal sites across the country. Also on January 14, 2009, Nick J. Rahall, a U.S. Representative from West Virginia and the chairman of the United States House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced a bill to regulate coal ash disposal sites across the United States.
The EPA first estimated that the spill would take four to six weeks to clean up; however, Chandra Taylor, the staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the cleanup could take months and possibly years. As of June 2009, six months following the spill, only 3% of the spill had been cleaned and was estimated to cost between $675 and $975 million to clean, according to the TVA. TVA hired California-based Jacobs Engineering to clean up the spill. The cleanup was accomplished under guidelines set by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). On May 11, 2009 TVA and the EPA announced an order and agreement that documents the relationship between TVA and EPA in managing the clean-up of the Kingston ash spill, further ensuring that TVA would meet all federal and state environmental requirements in restoring affected areas.
During the first phase of the cleanup, known as the time-critical phase, over 3.5 million cubic yards were removed within a year of the spill, with 85% being removed in a 10-month time frame. This phase accelerated the removal of ash from the river by 75% over original expectations and safely transported it to a permanent, lined and leachate collecting facility in Perry County, Alabama called Arrowhead landfill. The Emory River was reopened in late spring 2010. The time-critical phase removed 90% of the ash located in the Emory River. The next phase, which began in August 2010, removed the remaining ash from the Swan Pond Embayment of Watts Bar Reservoir. About 500,000 cubic yards of material, which mixed with the remains of leaked material from atomic energy production operations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the Cold War, was left in the rivers. The final phase of the cleanup consisted of assessments on the health and environmental effects of leaving this ash in the waterways. The cleanup was completed in 2015, and cost approximately $1.134 billion.
During the cleanup TVA built a new protective levee around the pond, covered the ash pond with a 2 feet (0.61 m) earthquake-proof clay layer, and replanted the areas damaged by the spill. They also purchased 180 properties and 960 acres from landowners affected by the spill, and built a park on the former site of homes damaged by the spill. They also made more than $43 million in-lieu-of-tax payments to the local governments to compensate for lost property and sales tax revenue. Shortly after the cleanup was complete, TVA began selling off some of the land that they had acquired around the spill.
In January 2017, the EPA announced that the ecosystems impacted by the spill had returned to conditions prior to the spill.
On December 23, 2008 the environmental group Greenpeace asked for a criminal investigation into the incident, focusing on whether the TVA could have prevented the spill. On December 30, 2008 a group of landowners filed suit against the TVA for $165 million in Tennessee state court. Also on December 30, 2008 the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy announced its intention to sue the TVA under the federal Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. On February 4, 2009, the EPA and TDEC issued a letter to TVA in which the EPA provided notice to TVA that they consider the release to be an unpermitted discharge of a pollutant in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Critics of the EPA's response claim the solution was an act of environmental racism. Roane County's population is 91% non-Hispanic white. The EPA shipped the toxic coal ash 300 miles south to Uniontown, Alabama, which has a population that is 88% African American. Dr. Robert D. Bullard, a champion for the victims of environmental racism, claims that the EPA's response was a prioritization of the health of Caucasian Americans over the health of African Americans. The coal ash incident is often used in comparison to the Flint water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
A number of workers suffered health effects in the years following the spill at the cleanup site. By the ten year anniversary of the event, hundreds of workers had been sickened and more than 30 had died. In 2013, a small group of workers filed a lawsuit against contractor Jacobs Engineering, but this lawsuit was dismissed by judge Thomas A. Varlan, chief justice for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee the following year. This ruling was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit after evidence was discovered that Jacobs Engineering had misled the workers about the dangers of coal ash. A federal jury ruled in favor of the workers seeking compensation in November 2018. The plaintiffs agreed that Jacobs Engineering had failed to keep workers safe from environmental hazards, and had misled them about the dangers of coal ash, mainly by claiming that extra protective equipment, such as mask and protective clothing, was unnecessary.
- Environmental impact of the coal industry
- Environmental disasters
- Buffalo Creek Flood
- Martin County sludge spill
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