Ten years ago today, the earthen wall of a coal ash impound in Kingston, Tennessee, ruptured, sending 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry rushing across the countryside, destroying homes and chocking streams and wetlands with the toxic leftovers from burning coal for electricity. Luckily, no one died in the flood, but more than 30 workers have died after cleaning up the spill. Another 200 workers are now sick or dying from blood cancer and other illnesses linked to heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium and mercury that are found in coal ash. A ceremony and memorial to honor the workers is being held today in Harriman, Tennessee, and a class action lawsuit against an environmental contractor who hired the cleanup workers is winding through the courts.
The Kingston disaster was the worst coal ash spill in United States history and inspired environmentalists to push for tighter regulations over the past decade, but pollution from coal ash remains a widespread and ongoing problem. Across the country, coal ash, boiler slag and other combustion waste from power plants is stored in open air pits and impoundments, where rainfall creates a toxic slurry full of heavy metals. At least 67 coal ash dumps in 22 states are currently leaking harmful chemicals into groundwater and will require cleanup efforts in the coming year, according to recent data posted by power companies and compiled by environmental groups, who expect that additional leaking pits have yet to be publicly identified.
Lessons From the Kingston Coal Ash Spill
The Kingston coal ash spill’s impacts were felt far beyond Tennessee. Coal ash from the spill was scraped from the rural landscape and loaded onto trains bound for a landfill in Uniontown, Alabama. The arrival of coal at Uniontown set off a long-running dispute between landfill operators and members of the rural, majority-Black community living nearby over whether the expanding landfill was damaging a historic cemetery and making people sick. Uniontown residents took their fight to the federal level and became well known in the movement for environmental justice, where activists fight back against polluting industries that habitually place their facilities near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
The Kingston spill is not the only coal ash disaster in recent memory. In 2014, a Duke Energy coal sludge pond in North Carolina leaked thousands of tons of coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River, turning the water and ominous grey and compromising drinking water and ecosystems for miles. Environmental groups have tussled with Duke Energy in courtrooms for years over leaky coal ash pits the company maintains across North Carolina and were on guard as Hurricane Florence ravaged the state this September. Environmentalists say at least one Duke coal ash pond overflowed during the storm and contaminated the Cape Fear River with heavy metals, although the company has disputed the extent of the pollution in statements to Truthout and other outlets.