Erin Brockovich, a long-time environmental activist, will be in Tennessee this week to hear from those who were affected by the December 22 release of coal ash at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant.  It appears the Tennessee Valley Authority has been less than fully forthcoming about the billion-plus-gallon spill containing a variety of toxic heavy metals.  In solidarity with Ms. Brockovich, we encourage those with first-hand information about the causes and consequences of this devastating incident, whether they be TVA employees or local residents, to come forward.

Post by Anne Polansky

Erin Brockovich is perhaps best known as portrayed by actress Julia Roberts in a 2000 Oscar-winning film that tells the story of how, as an inexperienced legal aide, she was instrumental in constructing and winning a watershed legal case in 1993 against a major California utility for contaminating a large area with chromium and endangering the health of more than 600 families.  A local paper reports that she will appear at a news conference tomorrow afternoon at the Midtown Valley United Methodist Church in Kingston, and will co-host a public meeting Friday evening at a local community college in Harriman, TN with law firm Weitz & Luxenberg P.C. that specializes in tort law related to consumer safety. 

Brockovich is quoted in a Weitz & Luxenberg press release:

“My main objective in these cases is to work with the community to build trust and help protect their health and safety.  Many times, industry deceives us and government is absent. People are left standing in contamination with no help.”

This was obviously an accident waiting to happen, at any one of hundreds of coal-fired power plant sites, if not this one.  Lack of sufficient EPA regulation, combined with aging power plants and facilities, and the forces of nature combined to let gravity take its rightful course.  The word “spill,” like the phrase “global warming,” just doesn’t do justice to the assault:

When the pond wall ripped open Dec. 22, more than one billion gallons of coal ash and water spilled out like a tidal wave, sweeping a home off its foundations and tearing trees out of the ground.

There are more than 600 coal-fired power plants in the US.  As an increasing number of them are required to remove increasing amounts of combustion products leading to air pollution (such as oxides of sulfur and nitrogen), the residual by-products, in fly-ash, bottom-ash, and so on, have to go somewhere.  Free to handle the problem as they wish, coal plant operators generally dispose of it in make-shift holding ponds, absent any of the liners or other containment systems required for everyday household garbage in landfills. 

And despite the fact that coal ash is a viable feedstock for cement production, rendering it essentially harmless, too little of it is diverted for this use.  (This is a topic worthy of revisiting.)

The extent of the problem was reported January 6 in the New York Times:

The coal ash pond that ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of East Tennessee last month was only one of more than 1,300 similar dumps across the United States — most of them unregulated and unmonitored — that contain billions more gallons of fly ash and other byproducts of burning coal.

In this article, the New York Times will say what TVA seems unwilling to say:

Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans, and can decimate fish, bird and frog populations in and around ash dumps, causing developmental problems like tadpoles born without teeth, or fish with severe spinal deformities.

The same article quotes Dr. Thomas A. Burke, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:  “It’s such a large volume of waste, and it’s so essential to the country’s energy supply; it’s basically been a loophole in the country’s waste management strategy.”

A loophole?  That’s being generous.  A loophole is an unintended opening that allows the savvy to get around a comprehensive regulation.  We can’t see much here that was unintended:  the Bush administration saw to it that coal producers were able to conduct business-as-usual, unencumbered with inconveniences such as protecting public health and welfare.  EPA rules have been pending for nearly a decade.  While many of us were focused on the atmosphere and air emissions, another problem at our feet, quite literally, was brewing. 

A retired mining engineer who is reported to have investigated a 1972 coal waste dam break that killed 125 people in West Virginia, Jack Spadaro, has claimed that states, in general, have failed to adequately monitor and regulate these coal ash ponds, troubling since the federal government has failed to address the problem sufficiently. 

Isn’t this just one more nail in the coffin in the case against burning coal to make electricity?  The case needs to be made, not just with global climate disruption in mind, but also in terms of the entire panoply of economic and adverse environmental impacts of coal combustion and the full fuel cycle.