In the early morning hours of December 22, 2008, a dike separating 5.4 million cubic yards of coal combustion waste product from the outside world breached. The toxic sludge flowed out like a river, moving its way through a local Tennessee community and into a nearby waterway. The magnitude of the spill was unprecedented. It could have filled a container with a base the size of a football field to a height of 370 stories, or an amount 101 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The slurry pushed with enough strength to sweep one resident’s home entirely off its foundation.
Yet in many ways the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee, was typical. As with most coal burning plants, its combustion process releases a gas of fine particles known as fly ash. In large enough quantities fly ash, which contains a blend of metals including arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium among others, is toxic. It can cause cancer, kidney problems, and nervous-system diseases among other ailments.
Some coal ash is recycled for other uses. The rest is mixed with a fluid transforming it into a metallic gray coal fly ash slurry. With nowhere else to put it, the Kingston plant dug gigantic holes into the earth and deposited the sludge there. The only thing separating the solid waste containment pond from the outside world was an earthen wall, that is, until the wall ruptured.
While the spill itself was devastating (and preventable), one resident, Deanna Copeland expressed an even greater worry. “Our concern is, what happens if this liquid dries out?” Ms. Copeland said. “There are huge health concerns. It’s going to get in our house. We’re going to breathe it in. It would be like walking through a dust bowl, and we don’t know what’s in the dust.”
While residents and many emergency officials were ignorant of the dust’s effects, government scientists were not. They had previously conducted research on coal fly ash and were well aware of its effects on human health. And yet on this December day, just hours before Christmas, the victims of this tragedy were kept completely in the dark, denied access to the government studies that could have potentially saved their lives.
The Kingston calamity raises two important questions. First, given a long history of leaks at the plant, why weren’t sufficient regulations in place to prevent the accident? Second, under what possible justification were victims denied basic information about their exposure risk?
The answers to those questions expose a disconnect between government scientists and a public that requires access to their conclusions. The culture of deregulation and secrecy is not unique to the Kingston plant, or even to the energy industry in general. Instead, we find in America an epidemic of ignorance and denial that spans across sectors, affecting each and every one of us.
In the forthcoming series of articles, I expose the circumstances that led to the Kingston calamity and provide numerous examples of how similar practices in other industries continue to endanger human health. Despite the Freedom of Information Act, which grants Americans access to government memos and reports, I will show how scientists are still routinely silenced and their studies are often redacted. Numerous examples of industry being favored over public safety will be provided. Finally, I will present evidence that suggests this problem has only worsened during the Obama administration before offering potential solutions.