Three days before Christmas, a retaining wall gave way at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal burning power plant in Kingston, Tennessee. The mucky, contaminated mess behind the wall poured out, 1.1 billion gallons of the brown-gray goo sloshing against the walls of fifteen homes, covering 300 acres, and turning the Emory River into an environmental disaster area. There were no immediate deaths or serious injuries, but it was a disaster just the same.

Ken Ward is a remarkable reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, and has been a watchdog for that state’s coal industry for years. Ward discovered that six of the sixteen coal ash storage dams in his state haven’t been inspected for more than a decade.

Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that all is well at the Little Blue Run Coal Ash Dam in Beaver County, PA. That’s a good thing, because Little Blue Run is thirty times the size of the holding pond and dam that gave way in Tennessee. Pennsylvania state inspectors contend that they visit every year. A recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project cited the holding pond as one of the potentially worst in the country due to high levels of selenium, a toxic metal. NASA posted this image of the waste reservoir, and its otherworldly swimming-pool-blue color here, as seen by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Those state inspectors missed one a few years ago, however. In 2005, a giant coal-ash mound collapsed, burying nine homes in Forward Township, PA and leaving behind arsenic contaminated sludge in a disaster not unlike the one in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is the government-chartered utility that runs hydro dams, coal and nuclear plants to power portions of five Southeastern states. TVA said last week that its cleanup tab could reach $825 million -- not including lawsuits. TVA has already paid out $2.5 million to buy damaged property in the path of the spill, and faces hundreds of unsettled claims. Some residents have said the sums offered by TVA are too small.

In mid-January, a TVA coal plant in Widows Creek, Alabama saw a smaller-scale rerun of the Kingston mess. Another retaining wall gave way, and a spill described as mostly gypsum waste escaped, with small quantities entering the creek.

An outraged Senator Barbara Boxer called for a review of all of TVA’s waste disposal sites. West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said such sites are a “ticking time bomb” -- not just TVA’s, but the 400 or so large and 1,000 or so smaller ones nationwide.

Mr. Rahall is in his 16th term in Congress. He was in his second term when Congress and EPA first considered regulating coal ash. Jimmy Carter was president, and Barack Obama was a year out of high school. There’s still no federal oversight, in spite of the knowledge that hundreds of millions of tons of waste, contaminated to varying and unknown degrees with a slew of heavy metals, sits in heaps or in muddy ponds virtually everywhere where coal is burned.

Eric Schaeffer is a former EPA enforcement chief who made waves when he resigned in 2002, citing the agency’s unwillingness to enforce the laws it was intended to uphold. He now runs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, and cites a variety of causes for EPA’s negative inertia, many of them dating well back before the coal-friendly Bush administration.

“Some of it is definitely politics,” Schaeffer says. “This is a heavily armed industry when it comes to lobbying. There might be sixty lawyers or lobbyists up against two or three regulators. When the Bush administration came in, it got worse. They were believers in the industry. The huge volume of the waste was daunting to the agency. It’s hazardous, and there’s hundreds of millions of tons of it.”

What has happened since the spill? For one thing, whiplash lawyers have become coal-ash lawyers. The Montgomery, Alabama firm Beasley-Allen is there to help. They’ve set up a website to recruit victims to a massive class action lawsuit similar to the one that Beasley and other firms won in a landmark contamination case in Anniston, Alabama a few years back. Billed as the biggest successful environmental case in history, the lawyers from Jere Beasley’s firm, along with several others including the late Johnny Cochran, won a $300 million judgment for PCB contamination at an old Monsanto chemical site. The victims’ average payout was just under $8,000 each. The lawyers made $120 million.

Inspections have been stepped up on the state level. Ohio hustled out to inspect 20 coal-ash holding facilities, but not until after the Tennessee calamity, and only after the Columbus Dispatch reported that those places had gone un-inspected for a decade.

A Duke University researcher found what he called risky levels of arsenic and radium in the mess left behind by the spill. An Oak Ridge National Labs researcher disputed the level of risk. The TVA and EPA reported test results that were fairly benign, only to have other scientists question their methodology.

What might happen? Kingston, Tennessee might become a tragic milestone in a national debate about just how much our cheap coal really costs. Acid rain, climate change, mountains destroyed, and now one more thing to add to the growing heap.

One group that’s following the saga as if their lives depended on it is Appalachian Voices. They’ve set up a special website for updated news on the spill. Also check out a previous column I wrote on how news and info on the spill has been neatly aggregated via Twitter. Scientists, activists, journalists, and even EPA folks are posting links to their work on Twitter, using the keyphrase “#coalash”.

We’ve seen time and time again that environmental news goes away when we’re not looking. Thirty years ago, there was an outcry against “strip mining,” prying the tops off of mountains to get at the coal inside. We thought the process had stopped. But take a trip to Google Earth’s mountaintop removal page, and you’ll have a bird’s eye view of what’s happened in the interim. That’s why keeping an eye on coal ash is a good idea.

Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)  

Political Habitat: Sludge under the bridge
What happens two months after a major environmental disaster, when the lights go out and everyone stops paying attention?