Little Bits of History

Fly Ash

Posted in History by patriciahysell on December 22, 2011

Aerial view of the damage caused by the spill

December 22, 2008: The largest release of fly ash in US history takes place just before 1 AM. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s  Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill took place in Roane County, Tennessee. The byproduct of coal combustion used to create power is fly ash. These fine particles were placed in water to create a slurry. The slurry was then stored in wet form in dredge cells. The resulting sludge was gray in color and viscous. The entire process was created to keep the fly ash from contaminating the air. The ash was instead stored in a retaining pond covering 84 acres. The dike holding back this mess ruptured and the slurry spewed forth.

The spill released 1.1 billion gallons of goo that eventually covered 300 acres in gray sludge. While located in a rural area, this still caused much property damage. The mudflow wave covered 12 houses, pushing one off its foundation and caused damage to 42 residential properties. It also broke a water main, obstructed a rail line, and downed trees and power lines. The volume of liquid released would fill 1,660 Olympic sized swimming pools and was about 101 times as great at the Exxon Valdez oil spill. A spokesman at the time said that ⅔ of the 2.6 million cubic yards was spilled, however analysis shows more than that amount was covering the area. Some areas were covered with as much as six feet of sludge on Christmas Day when aerial photos were taken which tripled the estimated size of the disaster.

With the release of this slurry, locals worried about contamination of the water supply. Testing by the company responsible and done at the time of the spill showed the water to be safe with “barely detectable” levels of mercury and arsenic. However, on January 1, 2009, and independent test of the waters near the breach showed significantly raised levels of many toxic metals including arsenic, barium, copper, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium.

The breach may have been caused by high levels of rain at the time. During the first three weeks of December, 6.48 inches of rain fell. That was on top of 1.16 inches that fell the last two days of November. The amount of rain, combined with temperatures that dropped to 12⁰ F weakened the earthen embankment, according to the TVA. In October 2008, an examination of the dam had revealed a “minor leak” in the structure. Two prior leaks had occurred in 2003 and 2006. The dam had been repaired each year since 2001. Greenpeace asked for a criminal investigation and landowners filed a lawsuit asking for $165 million.

“Modern technology / Owes ecology / An apology.” – Alan M. Eddison

“Because we don’t think about future generations, they will never forget us.” – Henrik Tikkanen

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” – Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

Also on this day:

March to the Sea – In 1864, General Sherman finished his march into Savannah, Georgia.
First PM – In 1885, Ito Hirobumi became the first Prime Minister of Japan.