Inside the Tennessee Coal Ash Spill

At about 1 a.m. last Dec. 22, James Schean awoke with a start. He heard what sounded like a furious thunderclap and a staccato of snapping trees. Then his house shuddered and heaved. Swept up by some mighty force, it tore clear of its foundation and rumbled off like a derailed freight car. "I could hear everything breaking," he says, "the rafters cracking, Sheetrock falling off, the furniture getting twisted and moved, all the pictures falling off the walls, glass breaking everywhere." Amid the upheaval, the power had been knocked out. He groped frantically in the dark for his pants, coat, and work boots, which he'd laid out beside his bed, and struggled to get them on. When the house finally stopped moving, everything went silent.

As he headed for the bedroom door, Schean realized he was ankle-deep in some kind of mud, thick and viscous like quicksand. All he could think about was his fiancée, Crystell Flinn, and their daughter, Heather Schean, who had come to visit. He called out their names, but heard nothing. He searched for them, feeling his way through the house and bumping up against walls and furniture in places they shouldn't have been. Still unable to find his family, he concluded (correctly) that Flinn had driven Heather home after he'd gone to sleep at 10 p.m. Now he just wanted to escape before the whole place collapsed. He tried the front door, but it was jammed shut. So he worked his way to the living room, where he jumped on a desk, kicked out the window above it, and wriggled through. An embankment that used to be across the road was now staring him in the face. Hearing people at the top of the hill calling to him, he clambered toward them, to safety. (When he later returned to his house, he found that the ceiling over his bed had caved in.)

As Schean soon learned, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant had experienced a catastrophic failure. He knew the place well. He'd been working there as a boilermaker for two years, and its towering twin stacks loomed over his waterfront property on Swan Pond Circle Road in Harriman, Tenn. Just across the pond where he and Flinn fished for bass, bluegill, and crappie sat a colossal 80-acre mound filled with fly ash, one of the waste products left over from burning coal for electricity.

On that December night, the dike surrounding the mound collapsed, unleashing a tsunami that coated 300 acres of gorgeous countryside and waterways with 1 billion gallons of gray sludge. The wall of ash surged with such ferocity that it destroyed three homes, including Schean's, which it carried about 40 feet and slammed against that embankment. The wave crumpled docks and wiped out roads and railroad tracks. It swallowed a small island, chewed up poplars and pines, and completely choked two sloughs where deer used to water. Miraculously, no one died; the breach occurred on one of the coldest nights of the year, when everyone was buttoned up indoors. But the devastation was overwhelming. When the ash finally settled, it looked "like the surface of the moon, all gray and craters and mounds," says Janice James, who owned one of the other destroyed homes and also managed to escape. "It was the saddest thing I've ever seen."

Yet the Kingston disaster had only begun to wreak its havoc. The largest industrial spill in U.S. history, it has created an environmental and engineering nightmare. The cleanup effort, which the Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing, could cost as much as $1 billion (though estimates continue to climb) and take years to complete. Meanwhile, the released ash—which is packed with toxins like arsenic, lead, and selenium—threatens to poison the air and water. Congressional committees are investigating the failure, some lawmakers are calling for greater regulation of utilities, and the EPA is probing about 400 other facilities across the country that store ash in similar ways. Yet the debacle has had another, potentially more far-reaching, impact: it has displayed in the most graphic manner imaginable just how dirty coal is. At a time when seemingly everyone from President Barack Obama on down is talking about "clean coal," the spill showed it's anything but. "Kingston opened people's eyes," says Lisa Evans of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental-law firm. "Clean coal is an impossibility."

Growing up in the Kingston area in the 1950s, Peggy Blanchard heard regularly about the virtues of coal and the Tennessee Valley Authority's mission to harness it for power. "The story I always heard," she says, "was that TVA provided jobs and electricity and flood control all throughout Appalachia, that that changed people's lives and made this a productive area." When TVA completed the Kingston plant in 1955, it was seen as a blessing. The smokestacks may have been unsightly, but the surrounding area was nevertheless stunning. Along Swan Pond Circle—a horseshoe-shaped road on a peninsula ringed by the Emory River—Blanchard would marvel at the rich variety of birds: cardinals, robins, great blue herons. Come April, she says, "you'd see beautiful colors reflected in the water, the tender green of spring leaves and redbud and dogwood."

Granted, the soot released from the plant could be unpleasant. It would drift down onto clothes left out to dry and would blanket vehicles so thickly that TVA used to provide free car washes. But over the years, as clean-air laws and regulations tightened, the utility cleaned up the emissions from the smokestacks. It installed scrubbers to filter out sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which contribute to acid rain. And it added devices called electrostatic precipitators to trap fly ash, which is so fine that it would otherwise shoot out through the flues, float into the atmosphere, and potentially lodge itself in people's lungs.

But all that sequestered fly ash has to go somewhere. Many plants dispose of it using a "dry" method, piping it into storage silos and then trucking it off to landfills. More, like the Kingston facility, opt for the cheaper "wet" method, which environmentalists consider far worse. It involves mixing the ash with water and sluicing it into a collection pond. From there, the ash is dredged and dumped in an impoundment, which usually lacks a protective liner, meaning that over time all those toxins could leach into the groundwater or nearby streams. According to a 2007 EPA study, residents living near such unlined ash ponds face heightened cancer risks from drinking water polluted by arsenic, as well as increased chances of lung, liver, and other organ damage from metals like cadmium and cobalt. In a separate report that same year, the EPA documented 67 contaminated sites in 23 states where coal-combustion waste—including fly ash and bottom ash, the stuff left over in the boilers—contaminated the water.

Coal-industry groups dispute the depiction of fly ash as inherently noxious. "If coal ash is not managed appropriately, it can produce adverse effects," says Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a lobbying organization. But "we believe coal ash can be safely managed." Not only that, he notes, plenty of fly ash is repurposed for "beneficial uses," including as a replacement for Portland cement in concrete. Environmental groups, however, argue that there's no getting around the fact that fly ash is filthy. And the more utilities scrub the air emerging from the stacks, the filthier the ash gets. Basically, "you're transfering the problem from the air to the ground," says Jeffrey Stant of the Environmental Integrity Project, which advocates for stricter coal-ash regulations.

In the wake of the Kingston spill, the fight over how to regulate the 129 million tons of coal-combustion waste produced in the U.S. each year has intensified. The EPA came close to regulating it as a hazardous waste in 2000, during the final months of the Clinton administration—a decision that would almost certainly have mandated dry storage of ash in double-lined landfills. But after coal lobbyists howled in protest, the EPA backed off, deciding to regulate it as a nonhazardous waste instead—the option favored by pro–coal lobbying groups like Roewer's. The agency never followed through on that determination, though. And once the Bush administration came to power, all movement on the issue ceased, thereby preserving the status quo: a patchwork of inconsistent state regulations that environmental groups consider, for the most part, anemic (though Roewer would dispute that).

Under Obama's new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, the calculus has now changed. In March she announced that the agency will propose new rules by the end of the year, and her staff has made clear that all options, including regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste, are back on the table. The EPA is also scrutinizing ash piles across the country. Of the 400 or so sites similar to Kingston's, the agency identified 44 that pose a "high hazard"—meaning that if they fail, they present a lethal threat to nearby communities. At first, the EPA declined to make the list public, citing national-security concerns raised by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security. But after Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, raised a stink, the agency released the list last month. It catalogued ash dumps in 10 states, including Arizona, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Though no TVA sites were named, the company announced this week that four of its facilities—two in Tennessee (not including Kingston) and two in Alabama—should have been labeled "high hazard."

Under tighter controls, the Kingston impoundment may never have reached the proportions it did. Blanchard remembers when the spot where the mound rose up was still an actual pond. Over the years, she watched as TVA walled the area off and gradually filled it in. The pile grew 10 feet high, then 20, then 30—fed by more than 1,000 tons of fly ash per day when all the boilers were burning. Occasionally, Blanchard would ask herself: "How high are they going to build that?" By last year the pile had reached 60 feet, sculpted into a massive tiered plateau held back by a dike made of rolled earth and … more ash. In the wee hours of Dec. 22, the pressure of all that waste—five decades' worth—simply became too much to bear. A root cause analysis released last month cited a number of potential reasons for the failure, including the height of the pond, the high water content of the ash, and the construction of the sloping dikes.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, TVA strived to reassure the surrounding community. "We're going to clean it up right," vowed CEO Tom Kilgore. "We're going to make it whole" and compensate affected residents. Among the many who trusted him was Tom Grizzard, whose family has owned land in the Swan Pond area since 1802. "TVA has been good to our community," he says. Apart from delivering jobs and cheap electricity, it donated computers to schools, sponsored local charities, and built parks and playing fields.

But in the months since, that trust has steadily eroded. Documents surfaced showing that the ash pond suffered repeated failures over the years and that TVA responded with what appeared to be patch-up jobs. In 2003, for instance, dredging had to be halted because of a leak in the dike. Among the eight solutions that TVA considered, according to one of its reports, was converting to a dry-ash collection system, which would have cost $25 million. In a table listing the pros and cons of that proposal, the former included "Global Fix" and "Benefit to Marketing???" while the latter cited "High Cost." In the end, TVA chose the cheapest option: constructing a new dredge cell (a subdivision of the pond) for $480,000, even though it listed under cons that this would be a "Short Life/Term Fix." Asked by NEWSWEEK whether it might not have been wiser to pay $25 million in 2003 to guard against the potentially billion-dollar cleanup TVA now faces, Kilgore replied: "In 20/20 hindsight, we ask ourselves that question too."

TVA has fanned suspicions further by seeming to downplay the dangers of the released ash. Early on, a TVA spokesman declared that the material "does have some heavy metals within it, but it's not toxic or anything." The utility says that all its air, water, and soil samples have fallen within environmental standards, with only a handful of exceptions—a spike in arsenic in the river water near the spill and some high thallium readings in a few soil tests. Yet a number of scientists and environmental groups have released more-worrisome findings—for example, elevated levels of not just arsenic, but barium, cadmium, lead, and selenium in water at the spill site. All of which has prompted arcane debates over sampling methodologies, leaving everyone who's not a chemist utterly confused—and scared.

Charlotte Phillips, for one, doesn't know what to think. Her daughter, Autumn, 6, had always been a healthy girl, never battling more than a runny nose or pinkeye. But a few days after the disaster, which occurred a couple miles down the road, Autumn developed a dry hack and suffered persistent vomiting bouts. Her condition worsened in subsequent weeks, prompting multiple trips to the emergency room, the pediatrician, a gastroenterologist, and a pulmonologist—roughly $12,000 worth of treatment and counting. Eventually, Autumn was diagnosed with asthma and now uses an inhaler. Her doctors think the spill—either ash released into the air or dust kicked up by the hundreds of dump trucks working on the cleanup—might have triggered it. No one can say for sure. But Phillips says she certainly didn't get any answers from TVA. She visited the company's outreach center in town at least 10 times to file medical claims and explore the possibility of TVA buying her house so she could move Autumn out of the Swan Pond area. But the company maintained that she wasn't entitled to such compensation. (She has since joined one of the seven lawsuits against the utility.)

How TVA decides whether to purchase a particular property is an especially incendiary topic. The company immediately bought out people like Schean, whose homes were either ruined or damaged. Then it made offers on places that it judged would be affected by the recovery effort—all the dredging, hauling, and rebuilding. TVA has acquired more than 100 properties so far and may buy as many as 140 altogether. A lot of folks in the area, though, consider that far too limited. If property values were already sinking because of the economic crisis, living near an ecological calamity has sent them into free fall. "The community has a big X on it," says Grizzard, whose opinion of TVA has soured since those early days. "You couldn't give land away now." Considering how deep his roots run in Harriman, he wouldn't want to sell. But he thinks TVA should at least compensate him for the diminished value of his land—a request the company has ruled out. "How can they draw a line and say, 'Here is affected, and here isn't affected?' " asks Grizzard. To which Kilgore responds: "You have to draw the line somewhere."

Kilgore, understandably, has been concentrating on a far more urgent issue: how to mop up 1 billion gallons of coal ash. Roughly half of it gushed into the channel fronting Schean's property and into the nearby sloughs. The water is gone, replaced by an enormous expanse of ash that has been bulldozed and graded into a somewhat tidier plain. TVA's main priority: to keep the ash from fluttering into the wind and dispersing throughout eastern Tennessee. After trying early on to seed it with grass and cover it with hay, officials settled on spraying it with a fluorescent green substance called Flexterra (typically used for erosion control) that seals the ash in place. Workers reapply the material to a few acres per day, leaving behind neon stains that give the site an even more dystopian look.

Dealing with the other half of the ash presents a thornier problem. It poured into the main part of the Emory River, settling in layers as thick as 30 feet. Dredge it, and you risk sending a stream of toxins downriver. Leave it in place, and you allow fish and other aquatic species to feed on it and introduce those toxins into the food chain. Making matters worse, the fish were apparently already poisoned before the spill even happened. Shea Tuberty, a biologist at Appalachian State University whose research team sampled species from the river a few weeks after the disaster, found that their tissues had dangerously high levels of selenium. Since that element usually takes at least a month to accumulate in an organism, the contamination probably occurred much earlier. One possible explanation: according to a TVA document, the Kingston plant was discharging about three pounds of selenium per day as part of its routine operations. The spill probably added some 27 tons more, by Tuberty's estimates. He found one catfish whose gut was filled with ash and others whose gills were coated with it. The adults will likely survive, he says. It's their offspring he's worried about.

To get an idea of what could happen to them, ask A. Dennis Lemly. A researcher at Wake Forest University, he studied the impact of coal-ash contamination on fish in Belews Lake, N.C., in the 1970s. Selenium entered their reproductive systems and produced a host of defects in their young: bulging eyes, twisted spines, deformed heads. Out of 20 species in the lake, 19 were wiped out. Something similar could happen in Kingston, according to Lemly. "The system was already saturated" with selenium, he says. "If anything, the spill will increase levels above that threshold."

With no good options, TVA is just trying to dredge the ash out of the river as quickly and carefully as possible. But workers ran into difficulties from the start. The dredges vacuum up ash with long suction tubes, and at their tips are round cutter heads with claws that crunch up solids into a purée that can be piped out more easily. As the cleanup crews discovered, though, the ash slide swept up so much debris in its path that the riverbed is teeming with trees, rocks, and pipes. So the cutters regularly jam up, halting activity until a backhoe can be barged in to clear the clutter out of the way. "That slowed us down a lot," says Anda Ray, the TVA executive in charge of the recovery. By late April—four months after the spill—only about 26 million gallons, roughly 4 percent of the total that landed in the Emory, had been removed.

Around that time, Steve Scarborough sat on his office balcony, from which you can see the affected area in the distance, and explained why he was so worked up. It wasn't that he owned a few lots out there and now had little hope of unloading them any time soon. It was the glacial pace of the dredging operation. The rainy season was nowhere near over, and all it would take was one big downpour to power up the Emory and send it charging through all that ash, carrying the stuff miles downstream. "We're in a race against time to get [the ash] out of the channel before a flood moves it out of there," he said.

A few weeks later it began to rain—mostly showers, punctuated by periodic cloudbursts. On their own, they weren't much to worry about, but they persisted for about two weeks. Gradually, the ground became saturated. And right when the earth couldn't absorb much more, Mother Nature let loose. On the weekend of May 2, storms battered the region with three-and-a-half inches of rain in about 36 hours. By May 4 the Emory, which might flow at 1,000 cubic feet per second on a normal day, churned up to nearly 70,000 cubic feet per second—about four or five times the volume of the Colorado River as it charges through the Grand Canyon. "It was probably the fifth highest [rate] in as many years," says Ray.

The heightened flow generated chaos. One of the dredges tore loose and collided against an embankment. The torrent roiled up heaps of ash and propelled them past a weir (an underwater dam) that TVA had built downstream to try to keep the muck in place. That May 4 morning, one of Scarborough's friends called him in tears. "You've got to come out and look at this," said the friend, who lives on the Emory about a mile below the spill. When Scarborough arrived, he went out to the guy's dock. The river looked like a tar pit—dark gray and swirling with sludge. "Oh, my God," he thought. It was worse than even he had imagined. According to bathymetry studies conducted afterward, millions of gallons of ash were dislodged and sent downriver. "Everything that we were afraid was going to happen, happened," says Scarborough.

As TVA continues to grapple with the cleanup, Schean is working through his own form of recovery. His cream-colored cottage with red trim, his beloved pond where he cast lines at sunset, his plans to build a second deck overlooking the water—"all of it got swept away," he says. He has few complaints about TVA. In settlement talks "they told me, 'Come up with a figure,' and I did," he says. "They gave me what I asked for" (a number he can't disclose, under the terms of the agreement). He and Flinn bought a brand-new house on the other end of Swan Pond Circle Road that's double the size of the old place. But the view—not much more than a green field—is nothing like that pond.

One recent afternoon, the couple visited the site of their old home. Where it once stood, there are now a couple of yellow backhoes and a blue outhouse. Behind that, the ash stretches out toward the ragged remains of the impoundment. And beyond that, in the shadow of the smokestacks, lies an old soccer field that's gradually filling up with the dredged ash from the river (TVA has started shipping it by rail to a landfill in Alabama). Schean recalled Kilgore's words in the aftermath of the spill: "We're going to make it whole," the CEO had said. "I think they will," said Schean, as he gazed out at all that gray. But the look on his face said otherwise.