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Drowning in a Toxic River

The news traveled quickly up and down the Coal River Valley. The morning of December 22nd, a dam holding back an ash pond burst at the Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant in east Tennessee and covered 400 acres twenty feet deep in toxic coal ash. Heavy rains were continuing to fall throughout the Appalachian region, and the concern was not only for the communities now living in this toxic nightmare but for the Shumate Dam, less than a mile down the Coal River from where I live, and just above the Marsh Fork Elementary School.  The earthen dam, which, like the Kingston dam, and which had also been leaking, held back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge, twice the amount of the Kingston Plant and hundreds of feet above the Coal River and the town of Whitesville. That day, like every day on the Coal River, a blast from the Endwhite Mine rattles windows the windows of my house, as Massey Energy excavates layer after layer of pulverized rock from the ancient mountains to get at the seams of coal that will be burned in plants such as the one in Kingston. Locals here fear that one day a blast will trigger the same sort of event that has just created the largest release of toxic chemicals and metals in the nation’s history.

Standing in the front yards of local resident Sandy Dickman, I can look out over the spill. Except it wasn’t a spill and it wasn’t a dam failure. A fifty foot high pile of toxic waste collapsed and took the dam with it. Except it wasn’t a even a dam and it sure wasn’t a pond, as the TVA calls it. It was a berm made of the same toxic material that was in the pile.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which built and manages the 50 year old plant, had covered it up with red clay, planted grass on it and some exotic pine trees at the base, and from Sandy’s yard it hadn’t look very threatening. But he knew what was in that pile and he and other locals had been complaining that it was leaking for years. TVA responded by installing some more pipes to drain the seepage into the Emory River. But when the pile collapsed, no dam could have held it back. It was supersaturated and highly unstable. The dam was pushed across the river largely intact, across acres of riparian forests, and like a bulldozer scrapping everything in its path, it shoved what was a sanctuary for wildlife up against the hills above the opposite side of slough. Killed were not only fish, but frogs, turtles, rabbits, mink, muskrat and all of the wildlife you would expect to find in a slough where three creeks joina large southern Appalachian river.

Large chunks of the dam survived the half mile trip across the floodplain until the twenty foot wave of ash and water crashed against the hillside beneath Sandy’s house with a force that cracked the walls of his basement, a full 80 feet above the river. Here, the wave action, deflected backwards, broke the dam in chunks the size of small icebergs. The pile of coal ash and other toxic waste oozed out of the pile until half of it was sitting in the river, backing up the slough and burying the mouths of three creeks. Water was still backing up and we watched as the TVA backhoes tried to dig channels and let the toxic stew drain out into the river. Out in the Emory River, a large rock weir is being built to hold back the muck, but it doesn’t hold back the water, which continues to drain off of the sludge and into the current.

“It will cost more to fix this foundation than the whole house is worth” Sandy says, “And even if TVA pays for it, they’re not going to fix this, there not going to put the slough back. All I have now is a house surrounded by a gravel pit.” Indeed, his house is at ground zero, directly across from the ash pile. Other homes in his neighborhood have been badly damaged or destroyed completely and TVA crews are quickly condemning and demolishing the buildings, as if to hide evidence of their crime. “They are just going to spread it out and plant grass on it.”

The avalanche of sludge that damaged Sandy’s house also wiped out the train tracks leading into the power plant. Seven out of nine generators have been shut down as the TVA feverishly works around the clock to replace the rails before they run out of coal. The coal trains will soon be bringing coal from Zeb Mountain to replenish the two piles that rise above everything on the site save the massive smoke stacks. This is the end of the line for the coal that is being ripped out of the Appalachian Mountains. From here, the clean invisible electrons will zip at dazzling speed through high tension wires to homes and factories across the country providing America with clean and cheap energy.

Except it isn’t clean and it sure isn’t cheap. Every day, plants like this one will consume 10,000 tons of coal and release three times that much carbon dioxide into the air, along with mercury, arsenic and lead. What they take out of the stacks will be concentrated in the ash, and that ash will eventually wind up in a river, and this is all that’s left of the mountain. All along the way, laws and regulations designed to prevent this disaster were ignored by the TVA managers. They spent millions lobbing against treating this ash as what it clearly is: toxic waste.

So what do we do about this? Can we afford to sit by and watch this for any longer? Can we afford to wait and let the environmental movement and the democrats try to solve this problem with more studies, more press conferences, and more e-mail? As I write this, news about another TVA coal ash spill, this one in Alabama, is burning up the newswires. More toxic waste has been released into the Tennessee River. I believe it is long past time for a non violent response to the ongoing criminal activity of the coal industry. It is time to shut them down.

On Sunday, the 25th of January, I will be organizing civil disobedience in East Tennessee. If you are able to be there with me, please come. If you can’t be there, contact me at roselle@lowbagger.org and find out other ways to offer support. For more information on the TVA ash spill and how you can get involved, go to www/unitedmountaindefense.org.

MIKE ROSELLE lives in Rock Creek, West Virginia. He can be reached at:roselle@lowbagger.org

 

 

 

 

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MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at: mikeroselle@hotmail.com

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