Kingston Coal Ash Sludge Spill Over a Billion Gallons: Time to Take a Hard Look at the Coal Industry

A glimpse of the destruction.

One week ago, Kingston, Tennessee, woke up to find that over one billion gallons of coal ash sludge had surged out of a poorly built and poorly maintained containment pond, one of three at the Kingston Coal Plant, after the dam holding back acres of inky black and toxic coal ash sludge failed. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal corporation that operates the Kingston Coal Plant, first reported that 360 millions gallons of coal ash sludge had flooded over 400 acres of local watersheds and river, then the estimate was revised to 540 million gallons, and now the best estimate puts the amount as over 1 billion gallons. This puts the amount spilled as more than 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster and, in fact, more than every drop of petroleum used in the United States that day. This coal sludge spill is simply unprecedented in size and scale and should become the stunning example of exactly how dirty coal really is.

Numbers aside, as it is impossible to really comprehend the scale of the disaster in words – this is a very dramatic example of how our consumption and reliance on coal is quite literally reshaping our world. Whether by flooding 400 acres of beautiful Tennessee valleys and rivers with six feet of coal ash, or blowing the tops off of literally hundreds of mountains in Appalachia, or changing the global climate itself through massive releases of carbon dioxide – the coal industry has perhaps the greatest impact of any industry in the world – yet we barely know it. Coal plants intake almost 20% of the United States’ freshwater, uses almost half of our freight railroad capacity, and leaves behind scarred landscapes, poor and exploited communities, kills vulnerable people – in fact, the Kingston Coal plant is estimated to cut short the lives of over 149 people a year – and coal is the leading source of global warming pollutants from the United States.

Coal power devours landscapes, poisons the land and water, and yet it remains virtually unregulated in critical areas of impact. Smokestack emissions of sulfur dioxide (SOX), nitrous oxide (NOX), and mercury are regulated – to a certain extent – with SOX regulated through a Cap & Trade system that has been adopted by most large environmental groups as the mechanism to tackle global warming. However, federally mandated scrubbers on coal plants have led to the concentration of pollutants in coal ash, everything from arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium, and uranium. Yet, coal ash is not regulated as toxic waste – although the EPA is ‘considering’ doing so’.

The Bush Administration has even worked at redefining the word ‘fill’ to allow the coal industry to be unregulated by the Clean Water Act and allow the destruction of mountains and pushing the rubble into streambeds and valleys. Carbon dioxide is still unregulated, despite efforts to pass a federal climate bill and the Supreme Court ruling that the Executive Branch is obligated to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Unregulated, unaccountable, and corrupt is the way that many coal companies operate. Little surprise then that TVA announced as a safety measure that residents impacted by the coal ash spill should boil their water – thereby concentrating the heavy metal contaminants – instead of providing safe drinking water to residents.

In ‘How to the Save the Coal Industry‘, Devilstower at DailyKos, forecasts the future of the industry: “If the industry works hard — if it gets rid of [Mountaintop Removal Mining], if it supports deployment of electric cars, if it cooperates in the establishment of tougher regulations and works together with the union — the industry can hold off a serious public effort to crush it. But when you look out past the next decade, there’s no way coal mining can hold back the future.”  I think we may be overdue for a serious public effort to crush to the coal industry.

If the EPA is considering regulating coal ash, then they damn well better get on it. The TVA may be a public entity but these holding ponds for coal ash are scattered across the US landscape, a continual threat for every community and living thing downstream. Since the TVA is a federal corporation, it might be a good example of how the incoming congress and administration can prove that they are serious about tackling global warming and protecting communities. Greenpeace is calling for a criminal investigation and one might be good to have some accountability for this disaster, but we need an investigation of why we are allowing an industry that kills tens of thousands of people a year, pillages our communities, and despoils our landscape to exist in the first place – especially as we have figured out other ways to keep the lights on. Some groups have called for a moratorium on new coal plants, but perhaps we need to start thinking about phasing out these plants – hopefully before a major disaster, next time.

17 Responses to “Kingston Coal Ash Sludge Spill Over a Billion Gallons: Time to Take a Hard Look at the Coal Industry”

  1. 1 chemguy1 Dec 30th, 2008 at 1:16 am

    Given the abominable way in which the EPA has bowed to the will of President Bush in allowing more and more lax regulations on such an incredibly toxic waste product as fly ash; given that organizations such as the TVA will always take every advantage of such loose regulations and hide behind the weak and ethically unsupportable excuse of “complying with all current regulations”, whether morally acceptable or not; and given that the bottom line in both government and business is money, and nothing else, I can only hope that even now, armies of lawyers are lining up to sue for tremendous sums both the EPA and the TVA for allowing this tragic, but all too predictable situation to develop. Only when the economic penalties of such irresponsible behavior are severe and certain will corporate America and its government puppets fulfill what should be their moral obligations. I say “should be” because to those without any ethics except what increases their wealth, there are no morals, no responsibility to the public, and no respect of the natural world. There is only profit, and only by the threat of removing that profit can change be forced upon them.

  2. 2 Puzzled Dec 30th, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    I went to high school in Kingston. TVA is held in very high regard there due to their high wages and benefits. My dad lives in Kingston. Dad came home for Christmas and didn’t know anything about this spill! I heard about it on CNN not from him! He called a friend still in Kingston and they told him there had been a boil order (I’m no chemist, but I agree with ‘chemguy1′, it’s illogical) but it had just been lifted. My dad is now back home in Kingston and the local authorities are saying it is ok to eat the fish – even though they are floating belly up! Someone with authority needs to get in there and help those sweet, trusting sheep! TVA can do most anything they want and put a positive spin on it! I told my dad NOT to eat the fish and he said “I ain’t no dummy. If the water can’t keep a fish alive, how’s it gonna ‘fect me??”

    Let’s see some of the promised “change” by our politicians! A positive change would be some IMMEDIATE ACTION to save some lives and minimize damage to flora and fauna. I too am puzzled that this is not being properly portrayed as a huge, catastrophic event.

  3. 3 mountaingirl Dec 30th, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    There are parallels between this spill and hurricane Katrina that happened in New Orleans in August of 2005. We point the finger of blame to the Army Corp, EPA, FEMA, TVA, the government, wondering how in the WORLD they could have let this happen?!? It’s human nature to want to blame someone or something, but should there always be someone/thing to blame? Mother Nature/Jah/God/Allah/Jehovah/insert your preference here played a role in both of these events, bringing tremendous wind and water to the Gulf Coast and bringing cold temperatures and rain to Tennessee which was part of the reason the dam broke, the news is reporting. I don’t doubt that in the months and years leading up to this catastrophe in Harriman that the TVA engineers felt they were doing all they could to make sure the ash pond was safe and secure. Isn’t that their job? I have trouble thinking that EPA or TVA “allowed” this to happen. lo que paso paso…..what happened, happened. now we have to react and change course. call me an optimist, but this is an opportunity! the small amount of good that can come from this is that more people will wake up to the facts that the coal industry is really not all it’s cracked up to be. We DO have us to take a hard look at the coal industry and what it is doing to our communities’ health. From cradle to grave, coal is a mess. It is a 19th century technology, which cannot be relied upon any longer to power our planet. We, and the earth, literally cannot take its’ poisoning effects much longer. Once again, an act of God, Mother Nature, whichever, has shown us that sometimes we, humans and our constructed realities are powerless to storms, wind, rain, cold, hot, ice, snow, blizzards, avalanches, mudslides, sinkholes, and tornados, etc. If you can send donations to Tennessee, they are greatly needed, for emergency water, food and supplies. Donations can be made to the non-profit United Mountain Defense at PO Box 20363 Knoxville, TN 37920. Please mark “for TVA Spill” Many thanks for your solidarity, economically and otherwise.

  4. 4 mountaingirl Dec 30th, 2008 at 4:13 pm
  5. 5 sparki Dec 30th, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    While we’re taking a hard look at the coal industry, I think we need to take a hard look at growing popular movements and building their power to topple the coal industry’s stranglehold on the nation’s utilities and various regional economies.

    The Tennessee coal ash disaster is prime example of why we need to escalate our tactics against this antiquated industry.

    In March, RAN, Greenpeace and many other groups will be escalating the fight against the coal industry with a mass direct action at the capital coal plant. (To get involved go to

    This has already been happening in the UK, Australia, New York, Boston, North Carolina, Appalachia, Richmond Va and lots of other places. Small fights against coal extraction and coal plants are growing into large fights. More and more people are risking their physical safety, reputations and livelihoods to challenge corporate and governmental false and compromised solutions to climate change. It’s time to get involved and take risks.

  6. 6 deirdre Dec 30th, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    I agree w/ sparki. Let’s not forget that coal mining can’t happen without funding, and the main banks that make the funding (and therefore mountaintop removal & sludge dam breaks) possible, are BANK OF AMERICA and CITIBANK.

    Take action against your local branches to pressure them to pull their funding from the coal industry immediately. Stay tuned for info about a mass Bank of America account closings day on February 14th, when Rising Tide Boston is urging the nation to “Break Up with Bank of America” on the grounds that they have broken our trust to an un-repairable level by funding the coal industry (the death of the planet) and unjustly evicting working families from their homes due to dirty lending practices.

    My thoughts are going out to the folks directly effected by this massive disaster in TN.

  7. 7 anarchyinc Dec 31st, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I used to live in TN and the rest of family still does, I went over to see the spill during X-mas and was amazed at what I saw. Down by the Swan Pond area next to the plant, where a lot of people use to go to fish, there WAS a very nice view of the riverbank where you would see ducks and geese and what not. What is there now is the road and columns of ash deposits 9 feet high coming from the sludge pit that used to be the waterline. There is no more river there that I can tell and I find it very hard to believe that you can even find any fish to eat. There simply isn’t any water left even if it wasn’t poisoned, unless you sank into the sludge you wouldn’t even get your ankles wet.

  8. 8 Dec 31st, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks to Richard Graves for this great update, and for explaining the many other ways that coal is a killer industry. I’m especially struck that coal uses HALF of our freight rail capacity. Of course, this means that the railroads are probably in kahoots with the coal companies, since they won’t want to lose this business. But in the coming age of clean energy, we will need that rail capacity for moving other stuff besides coal. Meanwhile, how about mass sit-ins on the rails?

  9. 9 Richard Graves Dec 31st, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Change Dominion –

    I have been tracking the percentages of our infrastructure and natural resources that coal usage takes up and it is just staggering. I am working on some pieces on the topic. Thanks for following this story.

    One interesting note about coal and the railroad industry is that Coal is one of the least profitable and cheapest freight cargoes. So while coal makes up around 44% of rail cargo, it only is around 23% of the income for railroads. They may be in cahoots for now, but if we were able to divert a percentage of the long-haul trucking freight to rail – we would save a lot of diesel too. So, reducing coal usage wouldn’t just have a direct impact but a slew of secondary impacts – including a reduction in diesel consumption (which is foreign oil) and less wear and tear on roads and bridges as well as less congestion on highways. This would even make rail more profitable, helping revitalize our most efficient land transportation system.

    Sounds like a bargain to me.

  10. 10 shams Dec 31st, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Very amazing site! I wish I could do something as nice as you did

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About Richard

Richard, VP, Business Development for Ethical Electric is a veteran of online organizing and online media, clean energy entrepreneurship, and mission-related investing. The founder of Fired Up Media and Editor of It's Getting Hot in Here, he served as VP of Project Finance for Solar Mosaic, the Online Organizer for the Webby-nominated, 17 million person TckTckTck campaign and as an angel investor in and board member to startups, such as Skyline Innovations, Faraday Bicycles, and He graduated from the Center for Progressive Leadership's Executive Fellowship and the NextGen Fellowship in Mission Related Investing, as well as Macalester College, where he developed the first student-led Clean Energy Revolving Fund. He also has been known to collect and use cooking equipment from around the world and might just make you something, if you ask nicely.

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