TVA Tennessee Disaster: Much Worse than Imagined and Radioactive!

"Imagined" is apparently the key word with the TVA, btw. This does not surprise me, unfortunately. What DOES surprise me is that there has been no real media coverage on what may be the very worst man-made environmental disaster in this country, ever.

Water testing by Appalachian State University is showing 35-300 ppm more arsenic and 6-60 ppm more lead than the EPA water drinking standards. What has not been discussed is that coal ash is radioactive, and at this point I have not found any evidence that measurements of uranium or thorium are being monitored. Let's try and change that!

From Waterkeepers and Appalachian Voices take water samples at TVA spill

This is worse than the Exxon Valdez, which is still not cleaned up, and I submit this is worse than Katrina, though it doesn't look that way yet, but the health and environmental devastation that will follow from this is not even conceivable at this point. I consider Katrina a man made environmental disaster because we could have saved the levees. Katrina was horrible. But so is this.

I will get to the radioactive issue in a moment, but today a test of the water quality from the Emory River was released from the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry labs at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, by Dr. Shea Tuberty, Associate Professor of Biology, and Dr. Carol Babyak, Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

“Although these results are preliminary, we want to release them because of the public health concern and because we believe the TVA and EPA aren’t being candid,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chair of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Results of the ICP-OES Analyses of the TVA ash spill samples collected 12-27-08 from the Emory River (PDF file)

All water samples were found to contain elevated levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. The samples were taken from the immediate area of the coal Waste spill, in front of the Kingston Fossil plant intake canal just downstream from the spill site, and at a power line crossing two miles downstream from the spill.

“I have never seen levels of arsenic, lead and copper this high in natural waters,” said Babyak.

This is incredibly worrisome, but apparently this radioactive information (and much of it focused on this geographical area(!) has been known for awhile.

Coal, meanwhile, is believed responsible for a host of more quotidian problems, such as mining accidents, acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions. But it isn't supposed to spawn three-eyed fish like Blinky.

Over the past few decades, however, a series of studies has called these stereotypes into question. Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. *

At issue is coal's content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or "whole," coal that they aren't a problem. But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels. [See Editor's Note at end of page 2]

Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and, in turn, food. People living within a "stack shadow"—the area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant's smokestacks—might then ingest small amounts of radiation. Fly ash is also disposed of in landfills and abandoned mines and quarries, posing a potential risk to people living around those areas.

In a 1978 paper for Science, J. P. McBride at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and his colleagues looked at the uranium and thorium content of fly ash from coal-fired power plants in Tennessee and Alabama. To answer the question of just how harmful leaching could be, the scientists estimated radiation exposure around the coal plants and compared it with exposure levels around boiling-water reactor and pressurized-water nuclear power plants.

The result: estimated radiation doses ingested by people living near the coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around the nuclear facilities. At one extreme, the scientists estimated fly ash radiation in individuals' bones at around 18 millirems (thousandths of a rem, a unit for measuring doses of ionizing radiation) a year. Doses for the two nuclear plants, by contrast, ranged from between three and six millirems for the same period. And when all food was grown in the area, radiation doses were 50 to 200 percent higher around the coal plants.

I hated to quote so much, but these are significant issues that are being overlooked by the media. People are MISSING this part of the information!

So the people in Tennessee are surrounded by this stuff, and the environment is being inundated, not only with 17 heavy metals that EPA drinking water standards has limits on, but also with radioactive elements. This is NOT being discussed, or even looked at. They are not being even warned about their WATER, let alone the effects of this toxic stew they are still living around. Anyone in the area of this disaster needs to re-situated as soon as possible. That river will not be fishable in the foreseeable future. This is a toxic mess and is Bush's fault for hiring cronies in the areas that could do something about this. What a great legacy for your outgoing 14 days!

Of course the heavy metals are a story in and of themselves and need to be looked at from every angle, and they are very serious:

Due to the porous topography in the Kingston and Harriman region, well and spring water contamination is one of the primary concerns for nearby populations. “The springs and the well water in that area need to be closely monitored to see if there is any movement of these arsenic compounds and other heavy metals percolating down through the soil into these wells, because the [surface] levels are 300 times higher,” said Tuberty. “That’s a dangerous level.”

“The highest level of risk you can have with these heavy metals is actually ingesting them,” Tuberty said. “Either drinking or eating them is really the only way it will become an issue, unless you are breathing them. That is coming into play with these ash piles, from drying and becoming picked up from the winds. You can actually breathe them in and that’s the third way you can become exposed to them.”

“The ecosystems around Kingston and Harriman are going to be in trouble, the aquatic ones for some time, until nature is able to bury these compounds in the environment,” said Tuberty. “I don’t know how long that will take, maybe generations.”


If you look at the Emory River, you can see that it is a a tributary to the Clinch River, and that's a tributary to the Tennessee River. This major river feeds water to Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia.

And eventually our oceans. Everything that spilled into the water lands there and goes DOWNSTREAM. Where it spilled it will never go away either, and while heavy metals will eventually be absorbed into the soil, it takes a long time to get rid of radioactive isotopes. I'm afraid Tuberty is vastly underestimating the effects at this point.

I wouldn't drink the water there, nor grow vegetables there... Hell I wouldn't live there at this point. Nor would I live downstream!


Coal Ash Kids


Is this the legacy we leave to that generation?

This is tremendously sad, and I place the blame on Bush. I worked for the Environmental Defense Fund in the 90's, for the Toxics Program, we focused on lead and other heavy metals, as well as dioxin. When I saw what had happened my alarm bells went off big time, because I knew this was much worse than it looked. This waste pool should have been superfunded and cleaned up years ago. This is a critical issue and must be addressed immediately after Obama takes office. Otherwise more of these things will make our country "toxic zones".

And while we are at it, we can make sure that he understands we KNOW that there is no such thing as "clean coal". When you rape the earth for it's resources, this is what happens. "Clean coal" is delusional, because no amount of "sequestration" addresses the coal ash, or the rapacious methods to get the coal. It's a dinosaur technology. I think this accident was hopefully a wake up call.

In the meantime, please complain to the press that they aren't covering this story better.

But what else is new?

Crossposted from Daily Kos

No votes yet


This looks like a huge mega-disaster that's being highly under-reported.

The potential impact is staggering.

Humningbird ... and welcome.

This is a truly horrifying story.

I'm glad this is getting sent out there.  Now I have to put it on my own blog,


I'll keep writing environmental stories when they catch my attention.  Now that i'm not pulling my hair out in frustration, I can focus on my real passion, which is green technologies, answers and solutions to our environmental challenges, and wildlife.  This is what I'm really interested in.  The Bush administration has perverted my attention and stifled my ability to write.


Thanks for giving me a forum, Greyhawk.

Welcome, Hummingbird!  Well this is quite frightening to one who lives downriver in North Carolina.  I am off to meet with a group of environmental activists working against the Duke Cliffside Coal Plant and I will alert them to your concerns.  I highly recommend that everyone read the book "Everything In Its Path", a story well known to students of sociology about the unforseen ripples of devastation that another flood (caused by mining) resulted in many years ago.  People fail to consider that whole communities and their social support systems are broken up, families are shattered, and the health consequences last for generations. 

Hummingbird, this is an excellent story--hope to see you again soon around these parts!

 in our Bookstore?

If so, maybe we could get a review done of it (I'll mention it in the email I'm sending out to the editors shortly) and then list it in the Bookstore...

It's not just folks in N. CA that need to be concerned.

I don't remember every reading or hearing anything about the spill before. When did it occur? Who has had the water alnalyzed--I am supposing it was by people such as yourself concerned about the environment. I was especially fascinated by the comparison you make to nuclear radiation, having always thought that nuclear was an inherently better technology than burning fossil fuels, especially most up-to-date intrincially safe HTGR reactors that you hydrogen gas as a buffer.

From what I can gather, the Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress have systematically underfunded every regulatory agence in order to keep them from enforcing what regulatory powers still remained to them. I know this is the case with FDA. 

I definitely looking forward to your writing a regular column for us.


Here's a Google Search for more media stories.

This particular spill was analyzed by some folks at the Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.  The piece gives some pretty horrific specifics -- including an idea of what the downstream folks might expect -- in terms of increased toxicity.

I think the whole point of the piece was that it wasn't getting enough media coverage given the scope -- it is almost as if it's just being treated as a giant spill of ashes, instead of the toxic, environmentally caustic cocktail that it really is.

People seem to be thinking "Oh, it's just 'ash' -- well, we're all made of ashes and stardust, so I suppose this could be great...just dirty."

And that's exactly opposite of the tact they need to take -- this stuff is highly toxic.

Anywho -- good morning! :)

Good morning to you, and it was another of your great finds. Thanks.


looking for, so overcompensated in case we have folks lurking who hadn't read the story and also didn't know the how-when-why of the spill.


I'm taxing my multi-tasking abilities this morning, so I'm not as clear and focused as a I should be. Sorry.

Profit care comes ahead of people care.  Can you believe Wise County, Virginia is building a brand spankin new clean hybrid coal fired power plant ?  WOW !  That's sure progress.

They say time changes things, but actually you have to change them youself - Andy Warhol


the future of energy. [sigh]. We ... just ... never ... learn. 

I feel very welcome here!

For those interested, on Monday, Jeff Farias is going to interview Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, who is going to be testifying on this spill in front of the Environment and Public Works Senate Panel on Thursday, January 8th.  Smith is going to be joined by a number of citizens who live there, and Jeff will follow up on Monday and talk to him and one of those citizens. 


Hope to see ya there... you can join us in live chat about this at Democracy Interactive.


over on DailyKos again today, in a piece by The Baculum King.  I posted links to this piece and its corresponding crosspost in the comments.