There has been a steady stream of updates to the Tennessee coal ash spill story since the retaining pond first burst at the Kingston Fossil Plant last week.

I initially reported that 2.6 million cubic yards (525,132,468 gallons) of fly ash, left over from burning coal to generate electricity, was spilled from an open air pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal fired steam plant, flooding 400 acres in the the nearby town of Harriman.

The latest numbers from the AP show the flood being twice that size, at over a billion gallons total. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was 10,800,000 gallons. The spill in Harriman is now 100 times larger than that disaster.

The TVA maintains that the water in down river Kingston in safe to drink and that they will pay for water testing during the cleanup. Local residents have been rightfully skeptical, especially coming on the heels of the arrest of two activists by TVA police who were detained while trying to take photographs and samples of the spill. The TVA is pulling their head inside its shell.

David Cooper and Matt London, with the non-profit environmental group United Mountain Defense, were detained for about an hour by TVA police while taking photographs from a public road. You can check out UMD's photo collection of the disaster here.

The New York Times has a good piece up talking about the toxicity of the spill. I was amazed to read this assertion from Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the TVA: "Most of that material is inert. It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything."

Let's parse that comment real quick.

"Most of that material is inert."

This is true, in a way. The majority of the slurry by weight and volume is either water or silicon dioxide, a hard glassy substance that can be easily thought of as sand. The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn't take much toxic chemicals to befoul a giant sample of otherwise inert material. Add a cup of dioxins to a swimming pool and enjoy the cancer you'll get after swimming some laps. Just a few microscopic spores of the botulinum toxin can in a room (full of inert air) can kill a person.

Yes, most of the material in the spill is inert, but the small percentage that isn't more than makes up for it. Here's what the UMD has to say about coal ash:

(It) contains numerous hazardous chemicals including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium, and molybdenum. When coal ash comes in contact with water, hazardous constituents leach out of the waste and contaminate groundwater and surface water.

Back to Gilbert's comments.

"It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything."

The heavy metals found in fly ash are very toxic. Lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and thallium are all exceedingly toxic, even in small amounts. They can cause cancer, birth defects, neural disorders, and a host of other illnesses.

The TVA needs to go into this with their hats in their hands, their heads sagging, and their wallets open. They screwed up big time and are now paying the price of not properly maintaining the left over coal ash. The problem is that hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of Tennesseans are also paying that price and will continue to do so for a long time.

We'll stay on top of this story.

Here's a good video report from CBS News:

Links [New York Times] & [United Mountain Defense] & [WATE]

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