Audio slideshow and article courtesy of NRDC

The people of Harriman, Tenn., woke the morning of Dec. 23, 2008, to find their community awash in a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. The waste -- enough to fill 1,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools -- poured from a storage pond that had collapsed the night before at a coal-fired power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Photographs taken by United Mountain Defense, an NRDC partner, in the days following the spill show the widespread impact on the surrounding community and countryside.

Water around the plant was contaminated with cancer-causing arsenic, and Harriman residents were forced to breathe and wade through hazardous sludge covering their homes, yards and rivers. TVA has refused to pay for medical testing for the victims – even as the coal industry continues to spend millions of dollars on a public relations campaign to convince Americans that coal is "clean."

If any good came from this disaster, it’s that eyes have been opened to the serious problems of coal waste storage in the United States. More than 1,300 coal ash ponds are in use across the country. A 2007 EPA report found that many are contaminating groundwater and wells, but the agency has yet to do anything about it. The dumps are currently bound by weak state regulations, with no federal safety measures to protect the public from 130 million tons of toxic sludge that power plants produce each year.

"This disaster is an urgent wake-up call for the government to take immediate action to protect hundreds of communities and thousands of people against the toxic sludge produced from coal -- not just in Tennessee, but throughout the country," says Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at NRDC. See NRDC's recommendations for protecting the environment and human health from toxic coal waste.