This is “Clean Coal”: Massive Coal Sludge Spill Dwarfs Exxon Valdez Disaster

Cross-posted from WattHead – Energy News and Commentary

Update: [Editor's note] The Tennessee TVA Spill is now estimated at over 1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge, over 100 times bigger than Exxon Valdez. Read our update here.

Let’s see how the “clean coal” PR hucksters at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity try to spin this tragic news: a retention pond holding toxic coal ash slurry burst Monday in Roane County, Tennessee, releasing over half a billion gallons of potentially toxic sludge that swept into the nearby town of Harriman and contaminated tributaries of the Tennessee River. The resulting flood damaged 15 homes, injured one man as it knocked his house off its foundations, and has left over 400 acres of land covered by several feet of coal ash, mud and contaminated water (see video below).

Coal ash and slurry is the normal byproduct of coal-fired electricity generating, and is usually stored in giant retaining ponds near coal plants. The resulting coal slurry is frequently contaminated by heavy metals, mercury and arsenic.

Yesterday’s tragedy struck at the coal ash impoundment associated with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired steam plant and released about 2.6 million cubic yards of slurry, the Tennessean reports. That’s enough to fill nearly 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and is over 40 times more contaminated sludge than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill.

As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words – and a video is worth even more; you can see scenes from the environmental disaster at the photo gallery here and the video below:

Greenpeace has called for a criminal investigation into the disaster, noting that similar spills in the past have resulted in felony charges.

“Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster,” said Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director. “The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable.”

The coal industry has a long and not-so-stellar record of coal slurry disasters.

“This is the kind of scary thing that people living with coal worry about every day,” notes Dana, a West Virginia-based activist with the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

At, Dana writes:

In February 1972, Buffalo Creek Sludge Impoundment, [burst and released] a mere 132 million gallons, killed 125 people, left 5,000 homeless and thousands more with post traumatic stress disorder. In 2000, a 2.2 billion gallon coal waste dam failed in Martin County, Kentucky. The largest dam in the hemisphere is the Brushy Fork Sludge Impoundment, which holds 9 billion gallons of toxic coal waste.

So, this is the history coalfield residents hold in our hearts when we open our emails and see “Slurry Pond Bursts.”

The Sierra Club’s Bruce Nilles, writing at DailyKos, notes:

“There are literally hundreds of these sludge impoundments across the United States. As coal has dominated Appalachia, it has left behind a toxic legacy for residents, a legacy that will haunt the region for decades. For example, in Sundial, West Virginia, an elementary school sits just 400 yards downhill from a massive impoundment containing 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge.”

Greenpeace notes that, like Exxon Valdez, the millions of gallons of coal sludge released Monday could take years to clean up, and some of the damage to the ecosystem could be irreparable.

“If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today,” said Kate Smolski, Senior Legislative Coordinator for Greenpeace.

Smolski added that these local impacts represent only a small fraction of coal’s negative impact.

“The really sad thing about this spill is that it’s only a small example of the damage coal causes,” Smolski added. “Add in global warming, tens of thousands of annual premature deaths from power plant pollution, and hundreds of mountains leveled across Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, and that’s the real picture of coal.”

Monday’s tragic slurry spill puts the lie to the coal industry’s recent multi-million dollar “clean coalPR blitz. You simply can’t argue with reality – at least not for too long.

See related posts:

33 Responses to “This is “Clean Coal”: Massive Coal Sludge Spill Dwarfs Exxon Valdez Disaster”

  1. 1 Jesse Jenkins Dec 23rd, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks to Dana for breaking this story at I hear reporters have been dispatched to the scene from the NY Times, so this story should make it into the mainstream media (as it should!) soon.

  2. 2 Jhoffa_ Dec 24th, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Do you freaks want to push people off an economic cliff? Drive energy costs to the moon in the middle of a recession and you’ll have hoovervilles popping up like dandelions.

    Coal and natural gas provide most of our electricity, inexpensively.

    This earf worship nonsense is a silly, expensive, vain notion Americans could ill afford in good times.. Let alone right now. Fuck the spill, fuck the earf.. dig moar coal.

  3. 3 jamzo Dec 24th, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    jhoffa: “Coal and natural gas provide most of our electricity, inexpensively”

    inexpensively for the power company and very expensively for us

    “inexpensive coal-powered electricity plants” are protected, inexpensive only because politicians do not allow the government to take steps to deal with the human and environmental damage caused by
    coal-fired power plants

  4. 4 Dude Dec 24th, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Don’t listen to Jhoffa_ above. He isn’t respected over on other blogs either. More “an individual in need of attention”. Keep up the good work. All I’d suggest is not subscribing to Hyperbole. Just the facts.

  5. 5 Treehuggingdirtworshiper Dec 24th, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    I bet Jhoffa would feel differently if one of these homes was his. Between this and mountaintop removal for mining the coal industry is basically a criminal enterprise that needs strict regulation and punishment. Coal and energy costs won’t matter too much if our air , land and water are polluted to the point of poisoning us to death. Besides that the economy has already been driven off the cliff by the same crowd that deregulated both the financial markets and environmental regualtions. As for cheap energy oh yeah how has that worked out for us over the last 8 years?

  6. 6 Joe Dec 24th, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    To the appropriately anonymous jhoffa- I can only hope your home is in the path of one of these spills one day. So that you might have time to consider your short-sighted outlook. People like you are the reason America is seen as an inconsiderate bully of the planet. Just like you.

    I only hope President Obama pays attention to this spill as we consider options for the future. There is no such thing as ‘clean coal’.


  7. 7 upset Dec 24th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    To Jhoffa_

    ….yeah…and let’s do it in YOUR backyard

  8. 8 Gene Taylor Dec 24th, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    I am glad we have Obama to help fix this stuff, I am sure he will stand up to the big boys. I hope Al Gore makes a special appearence at the site of the spill to bring publicity and raise awareness. We need to urge Obama to appoint James Lee Witt to head FEMA once again so that the U.S. can respond the way it should.

  9. 9 Franklin G. Dec 24th, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Coal is very expensive overall. Kills more people than any other kind of fuel. Damages the enviornment short AND long term, and wind, sun, hydrogen, and even river/ocean currents provide more stable and longer lasting/environmentally friendly resources for energy.

    And since God says we should tend the earth, it is a sin not to do so. Coal kills.

    God also thinks people like Jhoffa should get an education and learn how to spell.

  10. 10 Louis Kellenick Dec 24th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Nothing to see here folks.
    Now you just keep voting for them Republicans. One day they will make it right for you.
    One day.

  11. 11 Comrade Rutherford Dec 24th, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    “Coal and natural gas provide most of our electricity, inexpensively.”

    It’s so inexpensive that all we have to sacrifice is a few major rivers, a whole town, several houses, and the entire future of all life on the planet! What a bargain!

  12. 12 Mattie Reitman Dec 24th, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    I’m very glad that this is getting some attention, and hope that coverage continues to grow.

  13. 13 Matt Dernoga Dec 24th, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Excellent Post, I blogged about this incident myself

    clean coal my ass. coal kills!

  14. 14 Jesse Jenkins Dec 25th, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Jhoffa_, I deleted your latest comment because it contained offensive slurs, which are not tolerated at this site.

    However, the comment was well-researched, and I encourage you to post it again, sans epitaphs, to continue this discussion.

    Jesse Jenkins

  15. 15 Jhoffa_ Dec 25th, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    No thanks..

    I see your greenie pals can be as depreciating as they wish, I return fire and get censored for posting facts. I tire of this kind of discrimination.

    Lemme know how running the world on a watch battery works out for you.

    Your pursuit is allot of things, but it isn’t science.

  16. 16 rainbowcrowfeather Dec 25th, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Those of our species that lost there homes for this horroible lack of wisdom,
    although justifiably angery abought there fate, will not go with out food and shelter.They will mostlikely get help. Unlike all of the othere species that sufered greatly from this event. How many mamals, retiles, abphibians, fish, plants, trees and others not mentioned here died or are now struggling to suvive from wounds or from the hardships of relocating.

    It angers me to extream levels! To measure the pain, sufering and death that has happend on earth. I beleive that what we have done to nauture is the greatist crime against humanity.

    Blogs like this one helps heal the wound thank you

  17. 17 Aaron Dec 25th, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Just heard an amazing story on NPR about this, there is coverage everywhere! Out of something awful and ugly- progress and beauty will arise!

  18. 18 rainbowcrowfeather Dec 26th, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Aaron, i hope you’re right. Mabe, just mabe the gread for money will give way to reason and will get the party started.

  19. 19 gooseberry Dec 26th, 2008 at 7:27 am

    jhoffa said:

    “Lemme know how running the world on a watch battery works out for you.”


    Here in the UK we use less energy than you in the US. That is due higher efficiencies and a more compact society. In the US you do not use the land or your resources as efficiently.
    You can fool yourself into believing that the US needs more energy etc. But the reality is you waste an awful lot and that means someone else is losing out.

    Whatever way you look at it, the US must become more efficient and use less resources.

  20. 20 gooseberry Dec 26th, 2008 at 7:38 am

    jhoffa said:

    “Coal and natural gas provide most of our electricity, inexpensively.”


    Coal in the US is responsible for some 78% of electricity CO2 emissions (based on your current grid energy mix), yet it only provides about 46% of the electricity.
    Given that in the US, people have a carbon footprint twice the size of an average Brit, i suggest the average American can easily cut energy wastage by some 50% and still have a very good life.
    This effectively means coal could easily be eliminated from the US electricity mix, as it can in the UK as well.

  21. 21 R Margolis Dec 26th, 2008 at 8:33 am

    While 20% to 20% energy reductions are probable via efficiency, 50% is rather high. If one factors in that the US is larger, has different climates, and a more diverse economy than most nations it is not all that inefficient. Efficiency alone will not replace coal, but it is a significant piece.

  22. 22 gooseberry Dec 26th, 2008 at 11:40 am

    Re R Margolis

    The US maybe larger, but homes and land use do not have to correspond to that same scale!
    Because you have a lower population density, does that mean you have a right to use more land per person?
    You don’t get that in Africa where population density can be lower. It seems ridiculous that in the US you will use more land to build a house, just because you can and the bigger the house the more energy that will be wasted heating it etc.

    If you reduce the fossil fuel dependency, then naturally you would have to shrink suburban sprawls and reduce the dispersal of businesses etc.

    That’s where the big reductions come. It requires a massive re-think.

  23. 23 AkGru Dec 26th, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    As an individual directly impacted by the Exxon Valdez oilspill, I can tell you that the people involved here have very little recourse.

    Just this year the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Exxon had to pay a 10th of what a 1995 jury awarded to the damaged plaintiffs. The reduced award was recently distributed almost 20 years after the event itself.

    The little man does not win in this society.

  24. 24 R Margolis Dec 26th, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    I wonder if the standard of living in Africa were to improve if they would not have larger dwellings?

    Besides the ideological debate, there would also be a transition cost to move people out of the suburbs, restructure transportation, etc. My guess is that it would be cheaper to bridge the efficiency gap with lower carbon energy sources than trying to reorganize the US population.

  25. 25 Nicole Dec 26th, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    [deleted]: if we forget about the ‘earf’ (i could have sworn it was earTH) we aren’t going to have a place to live. think of it like this: let’s say you own and house and you live in it with your family. do you think you could just live without having to do any upkeep? i mean, you can not do the dishes for a while but eventually, it would be inhabitable. just like the earth (earf?) is going to be. global warming is serious. deadly serious. if we don’t start taking care of our home now, it’s going to be too late. i recommend to all a book called ISHMAEL.

  26. 26 Celia Andriello Dec 26th, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    THE BUFFALO CREEK DISASTER is the benchmark book written about what happened in West Virginia in the early 70s. It replicates this 2008 story to a T. Coal mining families live in very poor accommodations, and the miners risk black lung as well as their homes when it rains due to this mining policy that is 100% illegal.
    In THE BUFFALO CREEK diasater Pittston Corporation paid millions to the 600 families that either were washed away in the icy slug, and/or watched their children, wives, or husbands be suffocated by the waters’ slug. These dams that the coal companies create through coal waste continue to burn within their pile and therefore cannot create any kind of containment for the waters when they over flow.
    The gentleman who imparted his wisdom in the Buffalo Creek case traced back instance after instance throughout the US, and the UK that was done once again this Christmas time 2008. His book has done absolutely nothing to change the lives of these incredible people who mine generation after generation in order for me to respond to this blog, heat my home, refrigerate my food, etc. etc. etc.
    The Senators will all make their fained surprised statements to illustrate their horror, but the truth is that everyone of those dastardly Senators that earned their law degree had to read THE BUFFALO CREEK DISASTER in order to earn their juris doctorate.
    The problem must never be repeated. The coal companies have been performing in this slip-shod mannner for hundreds of years. It’s time to take them all to task and put the feet of our great elected leaders to the fire. It is time and we can change it, TODAY.

  27. 27 Trob Dec 26th, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    No mention or coverage on channel 48. FOX NEWS. Way to go FOX, we have to get info
    from somewhere else .

  28. 28 elizabeth Dec 26th, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    I live on a south texas ranch. I watch ExxonMobil leak oil all the time. They bury radioactive tank slag. We point out problems and they do not fix them. So, I made a website and posted photos and now they are suing me. You can watch how ExxonMobil really operates up close and personal. I take the photos, I film the videos, I live here. I know how they are.
    my website is
    Almost everything on the site is filmed in the last year. It’s really scary that a major oil company can operate like this in the USA in 2008. But, they do.

  29. 29 Dec 27th, 2008 at 12:21 am

    The Roane County disaster should be a wake-up call to all of us who rely on so-called cheap power from coal. Here in Virginia I’m suggesting we all ask Dominion Resources for full disclosure: how many sludge ponds does it have?
    Where are they located? How much is in them? What has been done to prevent accidents and possible sabotage?

  30. 30 pesach kremen Dec 28th, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    The Coal industry must pay 100% for the damage it causes. It is possible to scrub all exhaust from burning coal and eliminate mercury and carbon dioxide from the end product of combustion. This will require lower dividends and higher energy costs but we have no choice. All companies must be 100% responsible for all damage they cause. Mountaintop removal mining must cease as well. I am sure that in rich areas this would never be permitted, why is it in poor areas?

  1. 1 Clean Coal? An ashy conundrum Trackback on Dec 24th, 2008 at 12:41 pm
  2. 2 Clean Coal Isn’t « Yes We Did– Now What? Trackback on Dec 28th, 2008 at 1:04 am
  3. 3 TVA Coal Ash Disaster Much Worse Than Originally Thought : Red, Green, and Blue Trackback on Dec 28th, 2008 at 12:32 pm
Comments are currently closed.

About Jesse

Jesse Jenkins is an energy and climate policy analyst, advocate, and blogger. Jesse is the Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California, where he works to develop and advance new energy solutions to power America's future, secure our energy freedom, and halt global warming. He joined Breakthrough in June 2008 and previously directed the Breakthrough Generation fellowship program for young clean energy leaders. Jesse worked previously as a Research and Policy Associate at the Renewable Northwest Project in Portland, OR, helping to advance the development of the Pacific Northwest's abundant renewable energy potential. A prolific author and blogger on clean energy issues, Jesse is the founder and chief editor of WattHead - Energy News and Commentary, a featured writer and advisory board member at the Energy Collective, and a frequent contributor at, Huffington Post, and

Community Picks