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Coal Ash Spill
December 26, 2008 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Environmental disaster in Tennessee. On Monday, 5.4 million cubic yards (over 1 billion gallons; the Exxon Valdez oil spill was about 11 million gallons) of toxic coal ash sludge broke through an earthen retaining wall of a holding pond at TVA’s Kingston power plant, damaging 12 homes and covering over 400 acres up to six feet deep.
posted by homunculus (59 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
There Is No Such Thing As Clean Coal
posted by homunculus at 9:01 PM on December 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


This one is worse, but it reminds me of the Taum Sauk Reservoir dam failure in Missouri in December 2005.
posted by tss at 9:06 PM on December 26, 2008


A few other environmental disasters:

Aberfan disaster: A colliery waste tip containing unwanted rock from the local mine collapsed, destroying 20 houses and a farm before going on to demolish virtually all of Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school. The pupils had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful".

Sydney Tar Ponds: Known as the largest toxic waste site in North America. Byproducts from coke ovens that operated for 88 years on this site created run-off which contaminated the Muggah Creek estuary, creating the Sydney Tar Ponds. The coke ovens plant was demolished in the early 1990s.

Syncrude Tailings Dam: The Syncrude Tailings Dam is a barrage dam that is, by volume of material, the largest dam in the world at 540,000,000 cubic meters.As mining operations continue, the dam and the containment pond within it continue to grow in size.

The Seveso disaster: The Seveso disaster was an industrial accident that occurred around 12:37 pm July 10, 1976, in a small chemical manufacturing plant approximately 15 km north of Milan in the Lombardy region in Italy. It resulted in the highest known exposure to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) in residential populations.

The Jilin chemical plant explosions: a series of explosions which occurred on November 13, 2005, in the No.101 Petrochemical Plant in Jilin City, Jilin Province, China, over the period of an hour. The explosions killed six, injured dozens, and caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.

The blasts created an 80 km long toxic slick in the Songhua River, a tributary of the Amur. The slick, predominantly made up of benzene and nitrobenzene, passed through the Amur River over subsequent weeks.

The Phillips Disaster:
A devastating series of explosions and fire in October of 1989, near the Houston Ship Channel in Texas, USA. The initial blast registered 3.5 on the Richter Scale, and the conflagration took 10 hours to bring under control. Some 23 employees were killed and 314 were injured.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:49 PM on December 26, 2008 [5 favorites]


At the risk of sounding like I'm facetiously minimizing what is obviously a huge environmental disaster, I should like to take this opportunity to venerate a useful property of fly ash.

Fly ash is sold commercially as a concrete additive. Being that it's essentially a waste byproduct, it's extremely cheap. The first bag I bought was in a plain brown paper bag, with just the capital letters "FA" written on it. I think I paid $6.50 for a 60 pound bag.

But I wasn't adding it to concrete, I was testing it as an alternative to mineral powder diluents used as epoxy additives. People who build their own aircraft often use "fairing compounds" that are mixtures of epoxy and "micro" which are glass microballoons. Glass microballoons are very low in density, so the resulting putty is both strong and light; important qualities in aircraft.

In the marine industry, similar mineral diluent powders are sold along with epoxy or polyester resins. West System sells an entire line of powders intended as additives to create adhesive putties. Some, like colloidal silica, are thixotropes, and cannot really be substituted with more prosaic products.

After studying the MSDS sheets of various mineral fillers intended to create epoxy putties, it occurred to me that some of these things might be grossly overpriced. I set out to find an inexpensive mineral powder diluent that would make a useful epoxy putty.

I tried several, but eventually discovered Fly Ash. The real torture test is to apply a putty to a vertical surface; it should flow as little as possible. Note that I've applied several ounces of putty, some sagging is inevitable with such a large mass.

Epoxy and Fly Ash putty may not be appropriate for a boat or an airplane, but if you find paying epoxy prices for mineral diluents irrational, such as with a product like J-B Weld, I highly recommend you give fly ash a try. Interestingly, it's color is much like that of old school plastic "army men".

Don't forget to wear rubber gloves, as epoxy resin is Bisphenol A!
posted by Tube at 11:08 PM on December 26, 2008 [6 favorites]


I like how state and federal governments can't officially declare this an environmental disaster, much as the Republicans did with New York, after the 9/11 attacks. I hope affected Tennesseans get good lawyers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:27 PM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Earthen dam holding toxic sludge failing? Who would have thought it was even possible.
posted by maxwelton at 12:07 AM on December 27, 2008


Around Pittsburgh they're using it to deal with icy roads.
posted by tss at 12:15 AM on December 27, 2008


over 1 billion gallons; the Exxon Valdez oil spill was about 11 million gallons

In terms of volume, over 90 Exxon Valdezes?

Good gravy.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:39 AM on December 27, 2008


The local papers have some good info, and some photos.

I'm just speechless about this. Where to begin. I mean, the two most beautiful places I've experienced in my life were the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Smoky Mountains of east tennessee, and one of them is now four foot deep in radioactive sludge. 90 Exxon Valdezes, sure, and as horrible as that sounds... Consider that the Valdez spill ended up covering like 11000 square miles of open ocean, and this is just a fraction of that land area in an inland waterway that supplies water to three states as well as many, many protected habits and wetlands.

Even better, the TVA is - last time I checked - reporting that this ash isn't the least bit hazardous. Ha.
posted by absalom at 2:03 AM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just remember kids, the corporations which result in permanent damage to the ecosystem and the deaths of thousands are your friends, while those who take non-violent action to oppose it are eco-terrorists...

Don't let the terrorists win!
posted by yeloson at 4:37 AM on December 27, 2008 [5 favorites]


>Even better, the TVA is - last time I checked - reporting that this ash isn't the least bit hazardous. Ha.

Anyone who claims that should set an example by moving their entire entire family to the site of the spill.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:39 AM on December 27, 2008


Yeah, that's right...their "entire entire" family, right up to the fourth-cousin level.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:40 AM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


What a nightmare. The poor folks dealing with mess in the middle of winter. Awful. How fly ash is produced.
posted by nickyskye at 5:57 AM on December 27, 2008


Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste
posted by nickyskye at 6:03 AM on December 27, 2008


Coal is nasty stuff from start to finish. It's responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse warming - even if we stopped using all oil products right now (gasoline, plastic, etc) it wouldn't make much a dent in rising CO2 levels, coal is the majority of it.
posted by stbalbach at 6:22 AM on December 27, 2008


the Smoky Mountains of east tennessee, and one of them is now four foot deep in radioactive sludge.

400 acres is not even a full section (640 acres, one square mile). The Smoky Mountains are hardly "four foot deep in radioactive sludge".
posted by chlorus at 6:26 AM on December 27, 2008


Chlrous, did you serious take his statement literally, that the entire Smokey Mountains is four feet deep in sludge? That's hilarious.
posted by stbalbach at 6:38 AM on December 27, 2008


I was chiding the overall tone that accompanies anything environmental discussed on Metafilter. Did you really miss the point and think I took it literally? That's hilarious.
posted by chlorus at 7:20 AM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


That Unscientific American headline nickyskye linked is a real piece of work as well, implying that exposure to raw fly ash is more dangerous than exposure to spent nuclear fuel. Reading the article reveals it is comparing radiation ingestion rates within a one mile radius of each type of plant, coal and nuclear, and never addresses direct exposure to the materials involved. Not to mention that nuke plant waste is stored in lead-lined concrete pits while fly ash is dumped into open lagoons. The entire "radioactive" issue is hogwash - you get more radiation from an annual chest xray. Coal plants have much more egregious issues than radiation, like greenhouse gases. "Radioactive" fly ash is just more enviro-nazi fearmongering.
posted by chlorus at 7:42 AM on December 27, 2008


I grew up 2 miles from this on Swan Pond Circle. My parents still live there. To see it in person knowing that under all that sludge is the lakes we all loved so much is heartbreaking. Now in the middle of these lakes there are 6-10 columns of ash. They say this will be cleaned up in 4-6 weeks, but this will never be cleaned up. The people in this community moved to the country to stay out of the hustle and bustle. We know all our neighbors. Now we have to get cleared with the sheriffs department just to visit our family out there because there are so many tourist coming to see the disaster. The fish and turtles and birds are starting to show up dead in the rivers near us which flow into the Tennessee River. There hasn't been a word from our State Senators or Representatives. Over a week later the city council has finally decided to call a meeting.
posted by meeshell at 7:42 AM on December 27, 2008


Chlrous, did you serious take his statement literally, that the entire Smokey Mountains is four feet deep in sludge?

I'm not Chlorus, but I figured that poster was being literal, since math is not the strong point of MeFi posters.
posted by smackfu at 8:03 AM on December 27, 2008


The poor folks dealing with mess in the middle of winter.

Actually, Nicky, I would guess winter isn't that much worse for Tennessee. Although dealing with knee-deep toxic sludge in 90-degree summer days or 60-degree winter ones isn't that much of a choice.
posted by graventy at 8:08 AM on December 27, 2008


From the NYT article: “Most of that material is inert,” said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”

Give me a fucking break. And yet we have posters in this thread talking about "enviro-nazi fearmongering". Chlorus, could you just bugger off someplace else?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:56 AM on December 27, 2008


I would guess winter isn't that much worse for Tennessee

It usually gets down near or below freezing at night, and then maybe into the 40s during the days down that way. Right now they are having unseasonably warm weather, although I think that's supposed to end by next weekend.
posted by dilettante at 10:05 AM on December 27, 2008


Yeah, everybody knows that bemoaning a preventable environmental disaster is worse than Hitler!
posted by vibrotronica at 10:46 AM on December 27, 2008


Chlorus, I normally don't waste my time engaging in trolls and the other mindless hordes of the internet, but I'd like to point out a couple of non-hyperbolic statements in my thread you missed.

1. This is 10 times the material involved in the prior largest-ever environmental disaster in US history and covers probably 1/10th or less of the area.
2. It assures tons of high grade toxins enter the Tennessee river, which feeds not only protected habitats and wetlands, but also water used for drinking and recreation in three states
3. The officials responsible have a dismissive attitude shockingly similar to your own, which is fine for ignorant internet fuckwads, but is less attractive when coming from TVA officials and elected representatives.

I'll be waiting with baited breath for you to address any of the points listed above.

Now, you seem to be the sort that sees any and all environmental consciousness as pointless hand wringing, and that's all well and good. But, considering I've got a long standing and personal attachment not only to the state of Tennessee, but a strong connection to the area under discussion, you think you might cut some slack towards some righteous fury not only at the spill itself, but the completely fucked up way it's being non-handled. I mean, I notice you're profile is total shit, but rest assured that when a huge environmental catastraphuck hits whatever burg it is you're trolling from, I'll still be upset.

But, that's because I'm probably just a flat out a better person than you.
posted by absalom at 11:07 AM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Coal blogging is fun! Coal front group sets up 'Blogger Brigade' to fight reality
posted by homunculus at 11:32 AM on December 27, 2008


"Radioactive" fly ash is just more enviro-nazi fearmongering.- chlorus

Troll. Did you read the article? You rely on falsehoods, mis-representations and rhetoric like "unscientific American" and "enviro-nazi" while ignoring the science.
posted by stbalbach at 12:32 PM on December 27, 2008


Did you read the article?

Quite carefully. In fact I had no problem whatsoever with the article. The headline on the article is a whole other thing. It did not even remotely say what the article said. I have no problem with the science. It states clearly, as spelled out in the article:
The chances of experiencing adverse health effects from radiation are slim for both nuclear and coal-fired power plants—they're just somewhat higher for the coal ones.
and
buying a house in a stack shadow—in this case within 0.6 mile [one kilometer] of a coal plant—increases the annual amount of radiation you're exposed to by a maximum of 5 percent. But that's still less than the radiation encountered in normal yearly exposure to X-rays.
My second comment was directed at the headline, as was clearly stated at the beginning of the comment. The science makes clear that the radioactivity ingestion in and around coal plants, while greater that that of nuke plants, is minuscule. This probably has to do with containment practices - they don't have open lagoons holding nuke waste at nuke plants. This is because nuke waste is like, a bazillion times more radioactive than fly ash. The blatantly false headline and its citation in this thread are misleading and erroneous, and smack of enviro-nazi fearmongering, since a mound of fly ash muck in my yard is about as radioactively dangerous as half a dozen extra chest xrays. Nowhere do I imply that fly ash is harmless, that it isn't toxic, that it doesn't contain heavy metals, or that this incident is trivial. Nowhere have I championed coal plants, nor approved of the apparent non-response of TVA and the local government. Therefor, please note that your trendy and fanatic enviro-outrage has blinded you to the plain meaning of my remarks in this thread and apparently rendered you incapable of comprehension of the printed word. Now that's toxic.

So, stop calling me a troll, you ignoramus.
posted by chlorus at 2:32 PM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


So will there be any accountability?
posted by crapmatic at 3:09 PM on December 27, 2008


So, are you planning on sequestering some carbon in that strawman?
posted by stet at 3:17 PM on December 27, 2008


The article title is "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste" and the article says:
the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, fly ash—a by-product from burning coal for power—contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste.
Note that is says "waste" and not "spent fuel". Waste in this case would be water and steam and other waste by-products released into the environment by nuclear plants. For coal plants this is comparable to fly-ash, also a waste product released into the environment. How serious that is, well, try answering absalom's comments above which you have conveniently ignored.

Anyway, as absalom said of you above, "I normally don't waste my time engaging in trolls and the other mindless hordes of the internet". So I am not alone.
posted by stbalbach at 3:29 PM on December 27, 2008


Wasn't Tennessee the state that turned their back on their home grown environmentally friendly presidential candidate in 2000 to throw the election to George Bush? Weren't they also the first state this year to be called for John McCain? Yeah? Fuck 'em. Let 'em choke on the sludge.
posted by any major dude at 4:08 PM on December 27, 2008


Why would I address absolom's comments when they're nothing more than a bunny trail veering away from the point I was making - radioactivity is a non-starter as a coal burning issue. Let's see, you've got greenhouse emissions, massive destruction of irreplaceable landscapes wrought by ripping the top off of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys, ruined watersheds, devastated ecosystems, toxic fly ash laden with heavy metals, unsafe practices, corruption and regulatory shenanigans the likes of which would make Dick Cheney envious, and you want to make a big deal of some measly radium-dial quantities of radioactivity? Why grasp at straws when there are redwoods at your feet? If you want these issues taken seriously, and they need to be, you have to get some perspective.
posted by chlorus at 4:58 PM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wasn't Tennessee the state that turned their back on their home grown environmentally friendly presidential candidate in 2000 to throw the election to George Bush? Weren't they also the first state this year to be called for John McCain? Yeah? Fuck 'em. Let 'em choke on the sludge.

It's not Tennessee's fault that it's in the Eastern Time Zone. And even if they vote poorly politically, they're still Americans. My uncle voted McCain but that doesn't mean I won't help him out when he needs it.

And it's not like anyone will learn a political lesson in this. The result will be blame the corporation, or blame the government, and forget about it. Nothing will change because of the sludge.
posted by graventy at 5:20 PM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Clean coat facts: http://www.coalistotallyclean.com
posted by miratim at 7:39 PM on December 27, 2008


Alternate title for that article: "Nuclear Waste: Not as radioactive as you think!"
posted by smackfu at 10:25 PM on December 27, 2008


A few things:
coal dust slurry, not fly ash, was the problem in this disaster. Some info:
Excellent overview.
What is coal dust slurry?
Where does it come from? More.
Who else is in danger?
Isn't this illegal (like under the Clean Water Act? Scroll down.)
This has happened before, 125 people dead not to mention long term effects.
posted by CCBC at 1:23 AM on December 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wasn't Tennessee the state that turned their back on their home grown environmentally friendly presidential candidate in 2000 to throw the election to George Bush? Weren't they also the first state this year to be called for John McCain? Yeah? Fuck 'em. Let 'em choke on the sludge.

Speaking as a Tennessean who knows how beautiful the impacted area was, this is a really unnecessarily horrible thing to say. People don't deserve to have their homes and surroundings poisoned because they exercised their constitutional right to vote for a candidate in an election. This kind of nonsense political divisiveness -- they don't think the way we do so they must be treated as Other -- is exactly what we're supposed to be fighting against as a nation. These are Americans and fellow humans that you're talking about, try to remember that.
posted by ukdanae at 6:11 AM on December 28, 2008


ukdanae, funny how when myopic political decisions affect red states adversely us northerners are being petty by not riding to your rescue yet the south laughs at us when we ask for their help on our out of control gun violence and pollution. I think we should have went to war over this a long time ago, but of course you'll only listen when you are asking for our help. I am on the precipice of being affected by my own figurative slurry landslide due to the voting patterns of the ignorant of this nation. I'm sick and tired of being the only adult in this situation. Nothing will ever change for this country until the Republican Party is tossed into the political dustbin of history - and once that is accomplished it's time to do the same to the Democratic party which pretty much matches the Republican's level of iniquity with their own incompetence.
posted by any major dude at 6:48 AM on December 28, 2008


Remember that amount that was released? Well, actually it's actually double previous estimates.

any major dude: "Funny how when myopic political decisions affect red states adversely us northerners are being petty by not riding to your rescue yet the south laughs at us when we ask for their help on our out of control gun violence and pollution"

Your bunker mentality is very unappealing and pointlessly spiteful. "The south" doesn't laugh "at [the north]" because these are not coherent, singular entities. Never mind the 40% of Tennessee that votes reliably Democractic. Hell, 40% of god-damn Mississippi voted for Obama.

In short: Your worldview is in need of overhaul.
posted by absalom at 7:19 AM on December 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Has TVA Been Stockpiling Lies Along With Toxic Coal Wastes?
posted by homunculus at 11:38 AM on December 28, 2008


At the risk of pointlessly wringing my hands, I've been away from home (Maryville, TN, a beautiful town nestled between the Tennessee River and the Great Smoky Mountains) since 12/20. I'm not home yet, so I'm watching the news anxiously.

And by the way, don't lump East Tennessee in with the rest of the state. East TN has a surprising history, which includes being staunchly pro-Union during the Civil War (Sevier County voted unanimously to remain in the Union in 1861). The three stars on the Tennessee flag represent the three regions of Tennessee; West, Middle and East. Each is distinct in terms of language, history and culture. Lumping us all together (and suggesting that we deserve whatever we get for being a red state) does everyone a disservice.
posted by workerant at 3:32 PM on December 28, 2008


To clarify: my home is not threatened, but it is highly likely I know people who could use a hand right now. I'll be back in Maryville in a few days.
posted by workerant at 3:34 PM on December 28, 2008


ukdanae, funny how when myopic political decisions affect red states adversely us northerners are being petty by not riding to your rescue yet the south laughs at us when we ask for their help on our out of control gun violence and pollution. I think we should have went to war over this a long time ago, but of course you'll only listen when you are asking for our help.

any major dude, I'm not sure which southerners you're talking about here, but you're certainly not talking about me.

More information on East Tennessee in the civil war, as a follow-up to workerant.
posted by ukdanae at 4:16 PM on December 28, 2008


Meanwhile, on the subject of mountaintop removal mining: Kentucky Environmental Groups Battle Bush Administration’s Midnight Rulemaking
posted by homunculus at 8:03 PM on December 28, 2008


smackfu: "Alternate title for that article: "Nuclear Waste: Not as radioactive as you think!""

Who is "you"? I've always known nuclear plants release low levels of radiation into the environment. The Scientific America article appears to be written for people who are a little more informed I guess without having to recite the obvious facts. It's not a question of smartness, but experience, a lacking commodity in this discussion.
posted by stbalbach at 7:30 AM on December 29, 2008


At Plant in Coal Ash Spill, Toxic Deposits by the Ton
posted by homunculus at 8:59 AM on December 31, 2008


Tennessee Landowners File $165M Suit Over Massive Coal Ash Spill
posted by homunculus at 11:08 AM on December 31, 2008


National Coal Moratorium
posted by homunculus at 12:47 PM on December 31, 2008


Who will be the next victims?
posted by homunculus at 10:04 AM on January 1, 2009


Thanks for the updates, homunculus.
posted by absalom at 9:55 PM on January 2, 2009


Though, to be fair, I don't see what alternative there is. I'm afraid that public sentiment is far below what the situation warrants, and don't see anything changing soon. Sadly, I expect very little to come of this.

After all: the Valdez payments started going out, what, last month?

(After 5 billion became 383 million)
posted by absalom at 10:02 PM on January 2, 2009


It'll take three years of sweat and blood
to clean off all that Tennessee mud.
posted by Tube at 11:03 AM on January 3, 2009


Hundreds of Coal Ash Dumps Lack Regulation
posted by homunculus at 7:55 PM on January 7, 2009


Second TVA coal ash pond ruptures at Widows Creek coal plant in Alabama
posted by homunculus at 12:00 PM on January 9, 2009


Boxer: EPA should regulate coal-fired power plant waste
posted by homunculus at 10:49 AM on January 10, 2009


In other mining news: Gold mine wants court to OK dumping waste in lake
posted by homunculus at 11:30 AM on January 12, 2009


Coal ash crisis management: What's it going to take to enact proactive energy and environmental policy?
posted by homunculus at 12:01 PM on January 12, 2009


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