Sludge spill Tennessee
Wade Payne/AP
The land surrounding the Kingston fossil
plant where the sludge spill occurred.

Tennessee Sludge Spill Much Larger Than Previously Thought

December 29, 2008 08:57 AM
by Josh Katz
The amount of coal sludge that spilled from a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant into a nearby town could top 1 billion gallons, authorities say.

Affected Residents Remain Concerned About Air, Water Quality

The TVA originally estimated that 360 million gallons of coal ash sludge had escaped from behind a broken retention wall at its power plant in Kingston, Tenn., about 40 miles east of Knoxville. But late last week, the TVA revised the estimate to more than 1 billion gallons of coal sludge, CNN reported.

Efforts to clean up the spill continue through the weekend, but residents whose homes and properties were damaged by the sludge told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the TVA is not giving them answers.

Wesley Self’s mother lives close to the spill. He told the News Sentinel, “I don’t think (TVA) knows anything yet. I don’t think they know what they’re going to have to do. Nobody says anything. Nobody’s come knocking at the door. They really haven’t contacted us other than to come test the dirt.”

Tom Vereb, whose home was affected, described the scene to the newspaper. “We lost our waterfront. We lost our dock. There were trees and a hill and woods there. There was a whole island out there. That’s gone now. It’s a wet moonscape.”

A TVA spokesman told CNN that the agency is taking the spill seriously, and “we’re focused on it 24 hours a day.” John Moulton also said the TVA has never had to deal with a spill so big before.

The Kingston City Council scheduled a public meeting on Sunday to talk about the spill. Concerns that the sludge is toxic and tainting local water supplies, as previous sludge spills have in other areas, has not dissipated; test results are still pending.

Background: Sludge covers town, damages homes just before Christmas

A wall at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power plant in Kingston that was holding back the sludge gave way on Dec. 22, spilling millions of gallons of waste—“a byproduct of ash from coal combustion”—on the surrounding area, CNN reports.

The avalanche of sludge damaged 15 homes and forced the evacuation of all residents.

I would say we are trying to contain first and recover second,” TVA President and Chief Executive Tom Kilgore said Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

The sludge initially spread over an estimated 400 acres of land, exceeding the area covered from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash in 1989, according to TVA spokesman Gil Francis. He also indicated that it would take about four to six weeks to clean up the mess.

Preliminary water quality tests in the area indicated that drinking water was fine, and Francis said, “in terms of toxicity, until an analysis comes in, you can’t call [the water supply] toxic.” But CNN says notes that there are videos of dead fish in the tributary’s banks and Chandra Taylor, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, suggested that the sludge consists of concentrated substances like mercury, arsenic and benzine. Furthermore, the recent spill is larger than a sludge spill that occurred eight years earlier in Kentucky, where “The water supply for more than 25,000 residents was contaminated, and aquatic life in the area perished,” according to CNN.

Francis said that freezing temperatures, a possible cause of the spill, could have contributed to the death of the fish, AP reports. Six inches of rain also fell in the course of 10 days, which also could have caused the wall to break.

“Kilgore said leaks were repaired in the retention pond walls in 2003 and 2006, and maintenance problems identified in the pond’s last annual review in January were fixed,” AP reported.

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