Tennessee Coal Sludge Spill and the affects it had on the environment

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On December 22, 2008, a retention pond wall breached at Tennessee Valley Authority's, TVA. The ash spill was one of the worst environmental disasters ever experienced in this nation’s history. The waste, made of a toxic soup containing ash left over from burning coal, spread to the neighboring Kingston, Tennessee. When the incidence occurred, 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly slurry was released.

The 2010 winter brought heavy rains to the region, causing waste water runoff from the landfill be greater than expected. As a result 25 inches of rain caused 100,000 gallons of polluted water to be dealt with, likely causing pollution to spread to other locales.

The coal fired power-plant, located across the Clinch River, uses ponds to de-water the fly ash, (a byproduct of coal combustion) which is then stored in wet form in dredge cells. The slurry traveled across the Emory River and its Swan Pond embayment, on to the opposite shore, up to 300 acres of the surrounding land.

As a result a number of homes were destroyed. One eye witness in the river reported, “We saw more dead fish. We continued past the cranes, barges and other large equipment, not one of them removing the toxic coal ash that was slowly contaminating the river. No one said anything to us as we floated by on our way to the site of the ash spill.”

The environmental groups have voiced that slurry or coal is not a safe source of energy since they usually have adverse pollution abilities which include; river polluted and make fish unsafe to eat. Besides the metals contained in slurry can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems.

Coal fly ash contains concentrated amounts of mercury, arsenic, and benzene. However, OSHA does consider coal fly ash a "hazardous chemical. But residents and environmental groups expressed concern that the fly ash slurry could become more dangerous once it dried out.

One disappointed resident remarked, “…coal has destroyed homes, killed fish, and altered the ecology of the Emory River for the foreseeable future.” In addition, coal can also destroy mountaintops and pollute our air from the smokestacks, which can cause birth defects and nervous and reproductive system disorders.

Another effect which the spill had was the obstruction of rail maintenance by this spilled slurry. In contrast to the harmful effects which the residents have said may be brought by the spill, on December 26, 2008 the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation stated that it was satisfied with the water quality and continue to examine and deal with the potential for chronic health effects.

Hundreds of fish were floating dead downstream from the plant. Water tests showed elevated levels of lead and thallium. Early tests by TVA and the EPA of water six miles upstream of the ash flow showed that the public water supply met drinking water standards, despite elevated levels of lead and thallium found in river water near the spill.

Homes and trees were uprooted and a once-lush, green landscape turned to sludge and an eye sore sight. Residents raised their fears amid the chemicals released into the environment: arsenic, selenium, lead and radioactive materials including chromium and barium. The mounds of dark, viscous coal ash sapped the spirit of this community. Raising concerns as many felt trapped, scared and worse, ignored by the TVA and the government agencies meant to protect them.

The Hamptons believe that the air outside their home could be toxic to their children. They claimed that they first noticed that her children were having health problems only days after the spill. “They complained about headaches. Then, all three children began to experience upper-respiratory problems, fevers, ear infections, runny noses and red eyes.”

According to their family, he said that growths in their ears resembled small grapes. The major concern is that the doctors' visits over the past months had been frequent, expensive and inconclusive. Their fears were aligned in that, the coal slurry my cause DNA mutations to our children, cancer or even not ruling out death.

Research from the Duke University concluded that toxic elements in the coal ash could be suspended into the atmosphere thus posing a health risk to local communities. The study also concluded that the coal ash caused contamination in surface waters and that accumulation of toxic contaminants in river sediment could poison fish.

Anna George and colleagues found out high levels of potential toxics, which included arsenic and selenium, in the tissues of fish still swimming amid the coal ash in the Tennessee, Clinch and Emory rivers. Studies show that ingesting arsenic, at certain levels could cause cancer. Moreover, a study released by environmental groups and universities in May 2009, found levels of arsenic to be 260 times the federal drinking water standard and lead levels of up to 16 times the drinking water standard.

Besides, there was also a higher than normal level of selenium which in high doses could cause neurological problems. International Agency for Research on Cancer describes it as a "probable human carcinogen (CNN 2009). Plant’s byproducts included arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese, and barium; although tests of drinking water upstream from the plant indicated that the water there was safe to drink. Estimates of the time required to clean up the spill ranged from weeks to years.

What this disaster should show us is that coal isn’t cheap or clean. One of the greatest potential impacts from this type of spill is to benthic organisms, bugs and larvae in the river bed, which serve as food sources for other aquatic life. Amphibians, particularly frogs, are also very sensitive to this type of pollution. I have been involved with studies that used frog populations as way to assess the relative health of aquatic environments impacted by slag, acale and fly ash.

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