Remembering the Kingston, Tenn., coal-ash disaster

December 14, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


A year ago next Tuesday, at about 1 a.m., a coal-ash dike ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Plant near the junction of the Emory and Clinch rivers in East Tennessee.

An estimated 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled into nearby streams, fields and homes.  The disaster revealed broad gaps in the way toxic ash from the nation’s coal-fired power plants is handled, disposed of and regulated. Even before the incident, some citizen groups had called for reforms, but the Kingston Disaster increased scrutiny from the press and policymakers, bringing calls for legislation and for new EPA regulations.

Lisa Jackson, the Obama administration’s EPA administrator, has indicated her agency intends to have a proposed new rule on coal-ash disposal ready for public comment sometime before the end of 2009.


Meanwhile, tons of new information has come out about coal ash, both nationally and here in West Virginia. See previous posts including Secret EPA study: Big cancer risks from coal-ash pondsEPA names the names: Coal ash pond list disclosed, More data on threats from coal-ash impoundments, EPA releases ‘integrity studies’ of coal-ash dams, EPA releases big new report on coal ash, WVDEP finds problems with coal-ash dams, and (my personal favorite) Where are all the coal-ash dams?

The big news is going to be when EPA releases its proposal. Environmental groups are already worried the announcement will amount to what I described in a previous post as EPA and coal ash: Half a loaf of toxic dump regulations.

But in anticipation of next week’s anniversary, and the upcoming EPA announcement, the Environmental Integrity Project has in the last two weeks issued two interesting reports relating to coal-ash issues.

The first, released last week,  highlighted reports the TVA filed with regulators detailing the size of the toxic release that occurred when the Kingston impoundment failed.  Among the findings? The disaster dumped into the Emory River an estimated 140,000 pounds of arsenic contained in coal ash — more than twice the reported amount of the toxic chemical discharged into U.S. waterways from all U.S. power plants combined in 2007.

Environmental Integrity Project staffers analyzed the TVA reports filed with EPA and found a total of 2.66 million pounds of 10 toxic pollutants — arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, vanadium, and zinc.  According to EIP:

That compares to the much lower 2.04 million pounds of such discharges from all U.S. power plants into surface waters in 2007. The 2.66 million pound of toxic pollutants dumped into the Emory River in 2008 is nearly 45 times higher than the 59,950 pounds of such materials the TVA Kingston coal plant reported that it released into all U.S. waterways in 2007.

Eric Schaeffer, director of EIP, said:

EPA is expected to finally propose standards for coal-ash disposal sites by the end of December, and has promised to require the industry to meet Clean Water standards for limiting toxic discharges that were supposed to take effect twenty five years ago. Let’s hope these overdue regulations lead to the shutdown of unsafe and outdated ash ponds like the one that burst its banks in Tennessee one year ago this month.

And today, EIP joined with other major citizen groups in the region and nationally in a letter to President Obama, urging the administration and Congress to take actions specifically targeted to reforming the TVA. And at the same time, they issued a report, Outside the Law: Restoring Accountability to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

According to EIP, the report:

… Details how the TVA has emerged as one of the nation’s worst polluters by exploiting its special status as a federal corporation to sidestep federal regulation, avoid fines that other utilities are required to pay, and delay solutions to known environmental problems at Kingston and other TVA coal plants.

The report points out:

— TVA’s own inspector general  found that agency negligence contributed to the Kingston disaster, and that TVA avoided full transparency to limit litigation following the spill.

— TVA intended to transition its coal-waste ponds from wet to dry systems over 20 years ago, a move that could have averted the coal ash disasters at both Kingston and Widows Creek and curb TVA’s harmful water discharges. However, no such action was taken and TVA reported to EPA that it discharged 3,433,291 pounds of toxic pollutants into surface waters in 2008 alone.

— The TVA IG also found that TVA bypassed air emissions controls at the Cumberland, Widows Creek and Bull Run coal plants, resulting in well over a thousand tons of illegal  emissions. According to the IG reports, TVA delayed fixing the problem or reporting the emissions to regulatory authorities.

— TVA is home to some of the oldest and least efficient coal plants in the U.S. and spends less on maintenance than many of its competitors. Unlike some utilities, there is little evidence that TVA is making the transition toward clear, low-carbon sources of electricity — its recalcitrance may be aided by federal law that prohibits competition within TVA’s service area.

— Equally troubling, TVA repeatedly invokes its status as a “federal” agency to avoid responsibility for its own environmental misconduct. TVA raises issues of federal “sovereign immunity” to avoid penalties in environmental enforcement cases filed by citizens in federal court, yet TVA does not receive federal funds or tax dollars drawn from the U.S. Treasury. Limitations on the ability to recover penalties from federal agencies are supposed to protect the taxpayer — but TVA is completely self-financing, and has not received federal appropriations in decades; any fines paid by TVA need not come from the U.S. Treasury.

7 Responses to “Remembering the Kingston, Tenn., coal-ash disaster”

  1. Watcher says:

    Ken, isn’t this same toxic waste used as “fill material” in western state strip mine reclamation? If I’m not mistaken Ms. Jackson stated the western coal companies “had it right” with their reclamation program.

  2. Aaron says:

    Perhaps if the TVA had been stripped of it’s federal status decades ago and sold to private investors who operated under the scrutiny of government regulations this incident would have never occurred.

    This is just another example of socialism in action and proves that government intervention and ownership does not work.

  3. rhmooney3 says:

    Disasters occur for many reasons — mostly human scrrew-ups.

    (From a frient who was TVA scientist)
    At TVA an operator offloaded a leaking tank of anhydrous ammonia in the plant discharge (instead of the chem treatment pond built for that). This killed everything in the discharge canal and most of the north side of the Tennessee River. Alabama levied quite a nasty fine and the TVA Office of Power asked what they should do. My response was for them to pay the fine and thank Alabama for the wonderful opportunity to contribute to their program.

  4. Bob Kincaid says:


    If the truth be known, the Kingston Disaster will likely have ramifications that echo both downstream and down the decades.

    We have yet to comprehend, for instance, how reality will be changed for folks in Perry County, Alabama, where much of the recovered toxic waste was shipped. Perry County, Alabama is, of course, a poor county, and while there is resistance to its being used as a toxic waste dump, money is trumping the complaints.

    Because we are, as human beings, somewhat shortsighted, we have no idea what will befall the entire region affected by the disaster, from cancer clusters to toxic effects on cognition. Imagine an entire region of the country’s water supply being rendered as toxic as the water up Prenter Holler.

    I tend to disagree with the assertion above that privatization would’ve possibly prevented this. West Virginia’s coal-fired power plants are certainly private entities, yet the John Amos plant is one of the dirties plants in the country. Moreover, just last month the WVDEP was forced to admit that, as a result of an ash dam inspection mandated after the Kingston disaster, it found two dams it didn’t even know existed. As such, there’s no data to support the assertion that privatization leads to greater responsiblity. If anything, the opposite is most often the case.

    Finally, I can’t help but wonder if the Kingston Disaster is a function of the law of unintended consequences. Fly ash is a product of the cleaning process of coal-fired power plant emissions. The scrubbers were installed as a remedy to the acid rain problem, which was somewhat ameliorated, but exchanged a devil-we-know for a devil-we-don’t. Ultimately, we sought to treat a symptom (coal-based pullutants) instead of treating the disease (the inherent toxicity created by burning coal for electricity).

    As is so often the case in such half-measure approaches, we merely created a new and different problem while we continue to suffer from the underlying disease.

    I realize that folks involved with coal production don’t like to contemplate it, but had we worked meaningfully to get away from coal fired electricity a couple of decades back, these problems likely wouldn’t exist, or if they did, would exist on a significantly reduced scale.

  5. […] as a dark reminder of the anniversary of the the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster, nonviolent Tennessee residents and aide workers associated with the United Mountain Defense were […]

  6. […] as a dark reminder of the anniversary of the the 2008 TVA coal ash disaster, nonviolent Tennessee residents and aide workers associated with the United Mountain Defense were […]

  7. […] coal-ash disaster at a TVA plant in Kingston, Tenn., which we covered previously in Coal Tattoo here, here and here.  I also wrote a longer piece that ran in the Sunday Gazette-Mail on Dec. 20, and […]

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