Proof That Coal Can Never Be Clean

Written by Annie Sartor

Topics: Coal, Finance

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Yesterday morning, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal fired power plant in Harriman Tennessee spilled approximately 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Tennessee River and surrounding areas. Here’s the blog post from The Alliance for Appalachia‘s website:

TVA’s Coal Ash Sludge Pond Bursts

This Tennessee TVA spill is over 40-48 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, if local news accounts are correct. This is a huge environmental disaster of epic proportions; approximately 500 million gallons of nasty black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga TN and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. We’re “lucky” it was sludgy and slow moving, or thousands could have died. Click here to see an amazing aerial video of the spill – the big chunks in the river are mounds of coal ash.


Suprisingly, the industry still says that coal will be “clean” if we find out how to sequester the carbon– here is more terrible proof they are wrong. On Monday, 39 groups, including our friends with the Citizens Coal Council and The Alliance for Appalachia banded together to ask President-Elect Obama to overturn Bush’s recent attempts to de-regulate coal ash even more.

In some twist of grim irony, the night before these groups sent out their demand for increased regulation of coal ash, 4 to 6 feet of toxic coal ash and ice cold slurry burst out of a faulty TVA containment pond in Eastern Tennessee and destroyed 12 homes, 400 acres, and wrecked a train; you can read more about it in the Knoxville News Sentinel. This break isn’t the first terrible sludge dam disaster. It is a huge tragedy, and we won’t know for years how the mercury, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals like beryllium and cadmium commonly found in coal ash will have impacted the local community and wildlife.

Coal ash is what is leftover when you burn coal. Coal ash is an enormous problem throughout the US. It is more radioactive than nuclear waste, according to Scientific American and is under-regulated. It is made into concrete, drywall, and as a road building material. People living near coal ash dumps have been estimated to have up to 900 times the national cancer rates.

I might hazard a guess that that cancer figure just increased even more in eastern Tennessee.


Aerial video of the spill can be seen here, and coverage of the spill in the Tennessean is here.

This tragedy underscores the need for renewable energy – now! Coal is dirty from cradle to grave, and it hopefully won’t take another story like this one before our society abandons it in favor of safe, clean, green energy.

Support RAN’s campaign to stop dirty energy and sign the petition to demand that Citi and Bank of America – the largest funders of new coal-fired power plants – stop financing environmental destruction and start financing a renewable energy future.


3 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Luke says:

    Thanks for posting this, Annie.

  2. Wulf says:

    Annie, the concerns are chemical, not nuclear. Yes, arsenic and mercury are in the coal ash and can get into water sources, but the Scientific American article you mentioned is very misleading about radioactivity. Please see my fisking of the nuclear concerns.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. How many such dangerous sludge ponds are there in our country? Let’s start insisting that coal-burning public utilities fully disclose the number of ponds and the amount of sludge in each, and the steps that they are taking to prevent such disasters. See my post on this at

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