Coal Slurry Disaster in Tennessee is Largest Ever

  • Published on December 23rd, 2008

Unnatural disasters have become a fact of life dependent upon fossil fuels. The latest of these disasters came early Monday morning when a coal slurry impoundment at the TVA Kingston Power Plant near Harriman, TN burst, allowing approximately 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash to rush into the surrounding community.

Prior coal slurry disasters in Buffalo Creek, WV and Martin County, KY were significantly more deadly and damaging, despite being just a fraction of the volume. The fact that there were no serious injuries is perhaps the only victory in this ordeal.


Monday’s spill is forty times larger than even the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the most memorable of these unnatural disasters. The following summary came from Dave Cooper, a Kentucky activist and founder of the Mountaintop Removal Roadshow, a traveling workshop designed to educate people about the pitfalls of MTR in Appalachia:

On Monday morning Dec. 22 around 1:00 am, the earthen retaining wall around this mountain of coal ash failed and approximately 500 million gallons of nasty black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga TN and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Despite the magnitude of this disaster, it continued to fly under the radar of most media outlets until the last few hours. The Nashville Tennessean was the first to report on the story, although their interviews with TVA and EPA officials show that the federal authorities, who are ultimately responsible for this occurrence and its subsequent cleanup, aren’t that worried about it – despite the potential that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. Sadly enough, this was the case in each of the three previously mentioned disasters. In 1972, coal industry executives called the Buffalo Creek Flood, which killed over 100 people and left thousands injured and homeless, “an Act of God.”

Such terrible acts are far from divine. Instead, they are the direct results of negligent corporations and lax government regulations, which even at their most strict, have failed to fully protect those who live downstream and downwind from such places. And while the outcry has been widespread, it still doesn’t seem apparent that those citizens in Tennessee, or in any of the other areas affected so adversely by mountaintop removal, will be cared for properly or treated respectfully by those in power. The evidence that current policy is not adequate enough to protect both citizens and the natural environment is overwhelming.

This just does more to quiet the myth that coal can ever be ‘clean’ – whether it’s in extraction or burning, you can’t make the dirtiest source of energy on the planet anything but. Even if you make them sing Christmas carols.

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Photo Credit: The Martin County, KY coal slurry impoundment prior to 2000 flood via the Mine Safety and Health Administration

About the Author

Taylor Shelton is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky. He earned his B.A. is geography and political science from UK in December 2008. Taylor has, among other positions, served as the co-coordinator of UK Greenthumb, the largest student-run environmental club in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. He lives in Lexington, KY where he can be seen biking, blogging, walking the dog and spending unreasonable amounts of time on the internet. he also runs BlueGrassRoots, the progressive community blog in Kenucky, and blogs about Kentucky environmental politics at GreenKY


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