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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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Toxic Coal Ash Spill Threatens East Tennesssee

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This past Monday, the Tennessee Valley Authority disclosed to the New York Times a 2007 inventory of toxic materials that the Kingston Fossil Plant, a T.V.A. coal-fired electric plant 40 miles west of Knoxville, had deposited into a holding pond. The holding pond failed last week, flooding 300 acres of East Tennessee. The inventory showed that the plant deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic materials into the pond in just one year. In that one year, the plant’s toxic waste included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. And that’s just one year’s worth of dumping. The pond contained many decades’ worth of deposits. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems.

The Kingston plant uses 14,000 tons of coal a day. Its refuse, the coal ash, rises 55 feet above the banks of the Emory River, which flows into the Clinch and the Tennessee Rivers. The pond is contained by an earthen dike which gave way last Monday after a period of heavy rain. The T.V.A. estimates that 5.4 million cubic yards of ash muck slid away, covering 300 acres and knocking a nearby home off its foundation. Thirty-six homes sustained damage.

A full week after the spill, the T.V.A. and the EPA issued a joint statement recommending that direct contact with coal ash be avoided and that children and pets should stay away from affected areas. Understandably, local residents are upset that the authority was so slow to release information about the contents of the toxic ash and the water, soil, and sediment samples taken around the area of the spill. The EPA reported "very high" levels of arsenic have been found in water samples near the site of the spill. Complete results have been released for only two samples, both taken from a drinking water intake site upstream from the spill. Moreover, the T.V.A. increased the flow of the Tennessee River to keep the ash from approaching the drinking water intake for Kingston. Thus, test results from samples taken upstream from the spill are misleading. The people downstream from this spill have reason to be worried.