Another ash spill at a coal plant run by TVA *Updated

by Mike Gaworecki

January 9, 2009

For the second time in less than three weeks, a coal-burning power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has leaked toxic coal ash into a nearby watercourse. This time, it was at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northeastern Alabama. TVA claims to have contained the leak, and has confirmed that some gypsum spilled into Widows Creek, but according to this report by the Environmental Integrity Project, this new spill contained "even more toxic metals" than the spill at a TVA plant in Tennessee last month. The Widows Creek plant is located on the Guntersville Reservoir, which lies along the Teneessee River, the same river polluted by the massive spill at TVA’s Kingston power plant in Harriman, TN last month.

Greenpeace photo: The ruins of a home destroyed by a flood of coal ash slurry from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant

The ruins of a home destroyed by a flood of coal ash slurry from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant is surrounded by debris Dec. 29, 2008 in Harriman, Tenn. An earthen dam holding a containment pond broke Dec. 22, 2008, unleashing a billion gallon flood of toxic sludge into the Emory River and surrounding homes. © Greenpeace / Wade Payne

Clearly there has been a drastic failure of safety protocols at TVA, and there needs to be an investigation to establish exactly what has gone wrong. Some responsible adults must then implement safety measures to protect the public, since TVA seems incapable of doing so.

However much toxic material has been dumped into Widows Creek, this second spill points out once again the even larger problem: coal is and can never be a clean source of energy. We tend to focus much more on the degradation of ecosystems caused by the mining of coal, especially the horribly destructive mining practice known as "mountain top removal", as well as the huge amounts of CO2 emissions from the burning of coal that contribute to global warming. Coal ash has emerged in the past few weeks, however, as yet another drastic example of why there is no such thing as “clean coal.”

Congress passed legislation in 1977 that, for the first time, forced coal plants to install “scrubbers” on their smoke stacks to remove some of the more dangerous elements from the smoke they were pouring into the atmosphere – things like mercury that had been linked to health problems in people living near the coal plants. But when these elements are scrubbed from the smoke, they must go somewhere, and that somewhere ends up being the ash left over from the burning of the coal. This ash is then “stored” in unlined ponds or pits near the plants. About a decade ago the EPA proposed regulating these toxic ash lagoons, but the coal industry lobby killed the idea.

This lack of oversight has had dire consequences for the environment, as we’ve seen all too clearly the past few weeks. There is reason to hope these spills will lead to better oversight, however. From a post by our own Kate Rooth over on

[Today’s spill] comes after yesterday’s Senate Environment and Public Works committee hearing at which TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore admitted that the plant had earlier leak problems. The committee promised close scrutiny of the disaster and the potential for future federal environmental regulations as a result.

In 2000 the EPA decided against designating ash as hazardous. However last year they EPA identified 67 coal ash storage sites in 23 states that had caused or were suspected of causing contamination. Sen. Barbara Boxer said she plans to press Lisa Jackson, nominee to head EPA, on this issue during the confirmation hearing next week. For statements from the hearing visit the committee website.

It couldn’t be any clearer, at this point, that as long as we’re burning coal to meet our energy needs, we need to regulate every single phase of the process to force the industry to clean up its act as much as possible – from the mining to the burning to the leftover waste products, every step of the process is dirty as can be and needs to be closely monitored by responsible public servants.

Of course, the real solution is to stop burning coal and instead produce our energy using clean renewable sources like wind and solar. There is and never can be such a thing as “clean coal” when every step of the process of using coal as an energy source is hazardous and dirty. So-called “Carbon Capture and Sequestration” (CCS) technology, which has no more Earthly existence than so-called “clean coal” and yet is the basis of the green claims being made on a daily basis by the coal industry, is no kind of solution. CCS is really an absurd idea, since it essentially involves pumping an odorless, invisible gas underground and hoping it stays there permanently — especially when you consider that we’d be entrusting this process to an industry that can’t even ensure their giant pits of toxic sludge don’t spill into nearby rivers. Read more about CCS in our report, False Hope: Why carbon capture and storage won’t save the climate.

This second spill underscores the need for Renewables Now! Check out this slideshow of pictures from the coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston plant, and help spread the word that coal is dirty by posting the pics anywhere you can. You can also take action right now and tell the EPA to help stop global warming by regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Feel free to put in your own language about ensuring there are no more ash spills at TVA facilities or any other coal plant.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.