Tennessee Spill Bigger Than Exxon Valdez; Dead Fish Washing Up, Homes Evacuated

Media release - December 23, 2008
Greenpeace today called for a criminal investigation into the failure of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to prevent the spill of more than 500 million gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River, a tributary of the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers. The spill followed the breach of a dike at a coal-fired power plant owned by the TVA, and covered as many as 400 acres of land with potentially toxic ash as high as six feet deep.

"Every facility like this is supposed to have a spill contingency plan to prevent this kind of disaster," said Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director. "The authorities need to get to the bottom of what went wrong and hold the responsible parties accountable."

Similar spills have resulted in felony charges, Hind noted.

According to The Tennessean, the plant's neighbors have reported previous "baby blowouts" that caused less severe contamination.

Coal ash typically contains high concentrations of toxic chemicals like mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals. Following the spill, local television and photographers captured large numbers of dead fish washed up on the shores of the river and images of the area covered in mud and ash; 12 homes had to be evacuated. Excellent videos are available at the website of a local NBC affiliate, WBIR (

The contaminated rivers put the water supply at risk for major downstream cities like Chattanooga as well as millions of other people in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

"This spill shows that coal can never be 'clean,'" said Kate Smolski, Senior Legislative Coordinator for Greenpeace. "If the Exxon Valdez was a symbol of pollution 20 years ago, the Tennessee Coal Spill of 2008 is the symbol of it today."

Like Exxon Valdez, the spill could take years to clean up, and some of the damage to the ecosystem could be irreparable. Smolski added that these local impacts represent only a small fraction of coal's negative impact.

"The really sad thing about this spill is that it's only a small example of the damage coal causes," Smolski added. "Add in global warming, tens of thousands of annual premature deaths from power plant pollution, and hundreds of mountains leveled across Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, and that's the real picture of coal."

"If we're going to prevent disasters like this, we've got to complete the switch to truly clean energy like wind and solar power as rapidly as possible," Smolski said. "We can't afford more coal disasters and more dangerous global warming impacts."

Other contacts: Glenn Hurowitz, Greenpeace Media Director, 202-552-1828;
Interview Availability with Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director

VVPR info: WBIR videos of inundated houses, dead fish, landscape: || The Tennessean Coverage: || Greenpeace Report: “The True Cost of Coal”: || Energy [R]evolution: The Transition to Clean Energy: