Engineer: Ash Spill Warning Signs Ignored

Wednesday, 07 January 2009 13:57 by: Anonymous

Engineer: Ash Spill Warning Signs Ignored

    Earlier leaks should have been seen as stability issue, ex-regulator says.

    Nashville, Tennessee - The nation's largest government-run utility ignored two small leaks that could have provided a warning years before a coal ash pond collapsed, flooding a neighborhood with a billion gallons of sludge, a former federal regulator contends.

    Jack Spadaro, a retired mining engineer who investigated a 1972 coal waste dam break that killed 125 people in West Virginia, said states have done a poor job monitoring huge ponds of coal ash, which aren't regulated by the federal government.

Also see below:     
Exxon Valdez Survivor to Tennessee Coal Sludge Victims: Get Everything in Writing    â€¢

    Three homes were destroyed and 42 parcels of land damaged when one such pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Steam Plant collapsed Dec. 22.

    Tennessee uses solid waste landfill regulations for ash ponds, even though the substance in them ... a mix of water and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants ... behaves more like a liquid when it spills.

    "State regulation has failed obviously," said Spadaro, who contends the ponds should be regulated like dams. "I think there needs to be federal regulation of the fly ash and the construction of these reservoirs."

    The federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate the utility ponds because it doesn't consider the coal ash hazardous material, although it can contain trace amounts of heavy metals. Two federal agencies that oversee mining keep an eye on similar waste at coal mines but don't regulate coal-burning power plants.

    2003, 2006 Leaks

    At the Kingston plant, two small leaks in 2003 and 2006 caught the attention of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, which asked the TVA to provide additional details on the water going into the ponds but didn't require a new storage system.

    TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the earlier leaks were not related to last month's spill and were in a different area from the section that TVA officials believe caused the breach.

    When the pond wall ripped open Dec. 22, more than one billion gallons of coal ash and water spilled out like a tidal wave, sweeping a home off its foundations and tearing trees out of the ground.

    "This is not a typical landfill," said Glen Pugh, program director for Tennessee's division of solid waste management, which regulates the ash ponds.

    The ponds on the banks of the Emory River had sides 55 feet above the nearest road and contained more than 145 million gallons of water, according to the TVA. At the time of the spill, piles of ash reached 50 to 60 feet above the water in the ponds, Francis said.

    Pugh said the TVA applied for a landfill permit in the late 1990s when it decided it needed a new system to handle the ash piling up at the Kingston plant, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.

    The TVA had to repair the dike in 2003 after the ash started to leak out, Pugh said. He said the leak wasn't much but enough to lead the TVA to consider disposing of the ash in a dry form. The utility eventually decided to continue using the pond and Francis said repairs were made based on several recommendations from an independent engineering consultant.

    According to a 2008 inspection report, the TVA stopped dredging operations in a main pond after the 2003 leak, but continued using a smaller temporary pond while repairs were made. TVA resumed dredging in 2006, only to find ash seeping out of the dike just nine months later.

    Effort Made to Relieve Pressure

    The TVA installed a system to relieve pressure on the walls, and Pugh said it was typical to see small areas of water seeping out of the ponds because of the drains that the TVA installed.

    The state regulators were focused on the effect on the environment, and nothing in the TVA's latest inspection reports in May and October indicated that there was a structural problem with the retention ponds, Pugh said.

    But Spadaro, who spent nearly 30 years with the federal government as a mining regulator and instructor, said the TVA's last inspection report indicated the agency was irresponsible for failing to see these previous failures as an indication of a serious stability problem.

    Spadaro, who also directed the National Mine Health and Safety Administration's training academy, said that rather than continuing to operate the pond, TVA should have drained it and rebuilt the dam.

    Gov. Phil Bredesen has said Tennessee is now planning stronger oversight of such ponds. Other states where the TVA has ash ponds or landfills, including Alabama and Kentucky, say they perform regular inspections at these sites and have not had any problems.

    Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.


Exxon Valdez Survivor to Tennessee Coal Sludge Victims: Get Everything in Writing


by: Riki Ott, The Huffington Post

    Open letter to Tennessee communities harmed by the coal ash spill.

    Cordova, Alaska - I am sorry for your losses. These simple words were not said enough in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster that devastated our landscape, lives, and future.

    Our community learned a lot about dealing with disaster and healing in the 20 years since Exxon's oil coated beaches in beautiful Prince William Sound and stripped our lives of innocence. Perhaps we can share some hard-earned wisdom that might save you some of the wrong turns we made.

    Consider first the setup. I'll bet your spill, like ours, was an accident waiting to happen. The promised safety, spill prevention, and spill response measures weren't there when our accident occurred. The promises had fallen victim to cost-cutting measures in the name of higher profits and cheaper oil.

    Don't think that the government authorities and the industry will see the error of their ways and hasten to set things right. It took an act of Congress (the Oil Pollution Act of 1990), citizen oversight groups composed of spill survivors, and a couple of decades of tireless work on our part to force change. We're still waiting for every tanker to be double-hulled, a promise made (and broken) as a condition of building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline nearly 35 years ago.

    Next consider the spill. Those at fault, including the state and federal governments, will take extraordinary measures to hide the extent of the harm. Your spill has already doubled in size from initial reports. And human health risks? Government officials are telling you no worries, right?

    After Exxon's spill, the state of Alaska issued public health advisories declaring there was "no risk of adverse health effects from breathing the air." Exxon failed to report 6,722 cases of upper respiratory infections among cleanup workers to federal safety officials = no worries, trust us. Story continues below

    Then Exxon sealed the court records from public review when the evidence of a massive chemical poisoning epidemic from breathing oil-saturated air surfaced in a toxic tort lawsuit. The records are sealed until 2023, which just happens to be four years after ExxonMobil can legally destroy all medical records from its cleanup operation. No worries!

    And of course, according to those at fault, there will be no long-term environmental effects. The environment will recover rapidly. You just watch!

    We watched fish populations in Prince William Sound collapse three and four years after the spill. It was obvious to us that the young fish and eggs had not survived their oil bath. There was a time delay between when the young were exposed and when the adults failed to return.

    Government studies later validated our version of reality, but Exxon has loudly beat the drums of dissent and proclaimed its "science" is better. We're just delusional up here. In fact, we may have to go to court yet again, in order to get any of the court-ordered $92 million, promised two years ago, for lingering environmental harm.

    Meanwhile, the herring have still not recovered from the 1993 collapse. The once flourishing fisheries remain closed indefinitely. There is a new generation of children who have never seen herring. Ecosystem recovery is delayed by loss of this key forage fish. The bankers are not delusional about the debt owed on fishing permits, once thought of as retirement security and now a financial wreaking ball of home life.

    Now let's consider ways to get out of this mess. Those promises to make you whole? Relocate your homes and whatnot? Get them in writing in legally-binding agreements. In fact, put in writing exactly what it will take to make you whole as families and as a community. Use your list as a benchmark so when the media return in one-five-ten and twenty years for "anniversaries," you will have a way to gauge recovery.

    Working together on something for the greater good will hasten healing. So pick a focus, whether it's dealing with the mental health and social trauma, environmental trauma, or economic trauma. Form a core working group and figure out what you need to do to short-circuit the harm - or else you'll be wallowing in it for years. Such Peer Listening Circles are tools that shift people from victim mode to survivor mode - a vital change that can literally save lives - and rebuild a sense of community. Take it from a sibling injured community: this works.

    And heed our warning - lawsuits do not work to recover losses! The legal system is currently broken. Better to invest your time in mediation. Calculate your short- and long-term economic harm and the harm to quality of life. Balance these against spending the next twenty years in litigation. Make demands and make concessions, but be sure to do both as a community. Insist on a process where the people represent themselves and the lawyers take a back seat. Process is important to healing.

    Finally, consider this: your lives have been forever changed. Accept it. You have your hands full now. But commit to help making the long-term and fundamental changes in our lifestyles, communities, and government so that this won't happen again - to you or to any other community.


    Spill survivor and author Riki Ott shares insights on disaster trauma and recovery in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (Chelsea Green, 2008). She also wrote Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$ , on the long-term effects of the oil spill on people and the ecosystem. Ott is a former "fisherma'am" and now a full-time community activist, committed to making human values count over corporate profits. She lives in Cordova, Alaska.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 January 2009 16:14