Three days before Christmas, a billion gallons of liquefied coal ash poured out through a broken retaining wall, inundating fifteen homes, covering hundreds of acres of farm fields, and potentially contaminating water supplies for a sizable chunk of eastern Tennessee.

Coal ash is the portion of coal that’s neither converted to energy nor sent up the smokestack in the burning process. Coal-burning power plants routinely store coal ash on-site. It’s also toxic, containing at least traces of lead, cadmium, radium, mercury, and arsenic. No one yet knows the extent of the damage from the December 22 accident at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant, near the town of Harriman, TN. But by volume, the billion gallons is nearly 100 times the amount of crude oil spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez in America’s most famous fossil fuel disaster.

Maybe it was the Christmas holidays, but the major U.S. media largely took a pass on the story. The New York Times didn’t show up for 48 hours. National TV news outlets mostly ignored it, despite the appalling images of a community spending Christmas blanketed in a gray, soupy, toxic mess.

Twitter was an odd exception. The social networking site was abuzz with info from activists, journalists, scientists, and links to reports from regional media treating the story like the major environmental disaster it was.

With a 140-character limit on individual posts, Twitter looks like a poor conduit for in-depth information. But you can fit just about any URL in 140 characters. Twitter also has a simple, unique feature called a hashtag. Type in a key word preceded by the “#” in Twitter’s search function, and you’ll be taken to every Tweet that includes the phrase -- in this case, “#coalash.”

Amy Gahran is a Boulder, CO media consultant who specializes in both online and environmental journalism. “I saw a big story that I thought was interesting, and found almost nothing in the national media,” she told me. Within a day or two, Gahran had spearheaded a hashtag effort to bring all available info on the spill to a national audience of Twitterers. Other contributors included RoaneViews, a news and info website for the community near the Kingston power plant; the Knoxville News-Sentinel and Nashville Tennessean, two state dailies that have covered the story aggressively; and Jeffrey Levy, an EPA Web Information Officer, volunteered Agency maps and stats on the facility.

For her part, Twitter exceeded Gahran’s expectations. “For the first two or three weeks I tried Twitter, I was baffled by it,” she said. “But for 140 characters of text, it’s surprisingly human, and reaches people on a very human level.

As of this writing, there are over 20 pages of Tweets if you search #coalash on Twitter. A few are expressions of outrage over the spill, or at the major media for paying scant attention to it. Most are full of more content, and will take you to places like these: The Knoxville News-Sentinel posted aerial footage of the spill area on YouTube. And the activist group United Mountain Defense posted video of a canoe tour through the spill area. Luke Hall posted 31 photos on Facebook of his home, surrounded by coal ash residue. Another Tweeter linked to a Sierra Club Google map, showing the locations of coal plants nationwide -- each producing coal ash for every day of operation.

More than one poster to “#coalash” remarked that Twitter had aggregated the best news coverage of the spill to be found anywhere: All the news that’s fit to print -- in 140 characters or less.


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.)

Media Mayhem: Can Twitter save the earth?
How a social networking site beat the major media on a major environmental story.