In the middle of the night on Dec. 22, 2008, over a billion gallons of black, stinking coal ash slurry burst through a retaining dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant in Harriman, Tenn., and gushed out across fields and into the nearby river. It pushed houses off foundations and overturned cars and recreational vehicles. The foul coal ash was full of lead, mercury, arsenic and other deadly heavy metals. The spill eventually coated more than 400 acres with ash slurry up to 6 feet deep in places.
Residents woke up to find their town awash in a sea of black slurry. Those living in the homes that were directly struck by the slurry wave were evacuated and residents were assured by the TVA that everything would be fine, but that maybe they might want to drink bottled water in the meantime, just to be safe.
There's been a storm of controversy surrounding the accident ever since. TVA has been sued, critics have blasted its plans for shipping the ash off to poor communities in Alabama, and its own consultants found massive problems with how the public utility ran and maintained their ash storage operation. The spill brought the widespread problem of coal ash storage to the forefront of the American public like nothing before.