Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Kingston Fossil Fuel Pant Coal Ash Spill. (2008)

By Dr. Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

The Tennessee Valley Authority-Kingston Coal Ash spill (Harriman, Tennessee) occurred on December 22, 2008. It is the largest coal ash spill in US history.

The spill resulted when a earthen retaining wall at the TVA-Kingston waste impoundment area ruptured. The spill released an estimated 1.1 billion gallons (5.4 cubic yards) of coal ash slurry from the impoundment area. The spill was estimated to cover up to 400 acres. The spill effected Watts Bar Lake and the Clinch and Emory Rivers.

Prior to the failure of the retaining wall, six inches of rain had fallen during the ten days prior to the event. A prior inspection in October, 2008, identified a leak in the retaining wall. In 2003 and 2005, the retaining wall had been repaired due to leaks.The repairs were made using inexpensive methods. During later investigations, it was discovered that TVA engineers had altered retaining wall and groundwater testing reports to cover up knowledge of pre-existing dangerous conditions at the retention sites. A later report (issued September, 2011) by a dam construction expert indicated that some of the retention walls at the site (Dike C) had been improperly constructed when they were built in the 1950s, and contributed to the failure of the retention walls. These findings confirmed an earlier report (2009) issued by AECOM engineering.

A number of environmental toxins were released as a result of the accident, including: arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, vanadium and zinc. These pollutants can cause cancer, nervous system dysfunction, impair brain development, and heart conditions. The accident released quantities of these chemicals well in excess of total release of these pollutants into the environment by all coal fired power plants in the US combined in the prior year.

Several lawsuits and investigations followed in the wake of the spill. Local residents filed a $165 million dollar civil suit against TVA by the end of December 2008. In a joint suit, the Sierra Club, EarthJustice, and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and Environment also filed suit against TVA for failure to protect the public. By the end of 2009, hundreds of individual suits for damages were also filed.

In January, 2011, US Magistrate Bruce Guyton dismissed class action suits against TVA because TVA had purchased many of the damaged properties, and attempted to rectify the problem. In August of 2012, A US District Court judge ruled that TVA was liable for damages from the spill, allowing 60 cases to proceed against TVA.

In June, 2010, the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation assessed 11.5 million in fines against TVA for the spill.

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