The dike of a waste-holding pond at a power plant fails, moving houses off their foundation and spreading sludge far and wide. Here is a quote from one report:
The 40-acre pond was used by the Tennessee Valley Authority to hold a slurry of ash generated by the coal-burning Kingston Steam Plant in Harriman, about 50 miles west of Knoxville, said TVA spokesman Gil Francis. The dam gave way just before 1 a.m, burying a road and railroad tracks leading to the plant under several feet of dark gray mud.
Some report have incorrectly reported that this is a “mine disaster.” While this is no doubt a disaster, it is not a mining-related disaster, unless you tenuously link coal mining to coal-powered power plants and their waste impoundments. Yet this incident will be blamed on mines and mining, and we must act to correct this stream of toxic mis-information.
Here is another report on the failure:
This Tennessee TVA spill is over 40 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, if local news accounts are correct. This is a huge environmental disaster of epic proportions, approximately 500 million gallons of nasty black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River – the water supply for Chattanooga TN and millions of people living downstream in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. We’re “lucky” it was sludgy, or thousands would have died. Click here to see an amazing aerial video of the spill – the big chunks in the river are mounds of coal ash.
The funny and sad thing is the mis-information being put out by the anti-coal-mining groups. One of the more egregious is that the coal flyash is “more radioactive than radioactive waste.” The authority for this statement is a Scientific American article, which does not really support the contention. I quote the key part of the article:
The scientists estimated radiation exposure around the coal plants and compared it with exposure levels around boiling-water reactor and pressurized-water nuclear power plants. The result: estimated radiation doses ingested by people living near the coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around the nuclear facilities. At one extreme, the scientists estimated fly ash radiation in individuals’ bones at around 18 millirems (thousandths of a rem, a unit for measuring doses of ionizing radiation) a year. Doses for the two nuclear plants, by contrast, ranged from between three and six millirems for the same period. And when all food was grown in the area, radiation doses were 50 to 200 percent higher around the coal plants.
McBride and his co-authors estimated that individuals living near coal-fired installations are exposed to a maximum of 1.9 millirems of fly ash radiation yearly. To put these numbers in perspective, the average person encounters 360 millirems of annual “background radiation” from natural and man-made sources, including substances in Earth’s crust, cosmic rays, residue from nuclear tests and smoke detectors.
Dana Christensen, associate lab director for energy and engineering at ORNL, says that health risks from radiation in coal by-products are low. “Other risks like being hit by lightning,” he adds, “are three or four times greater than radiation-induced health effects from coal plants.” And McBride and his co-authors emphasize that other products of coal power, like emissions of acid rain–producing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrous oxide, pose greater health risks than radiation.
So let us keep this dike failure in perspective: it neither exonerates nor inculpates mining, whether it be coal mining or uranium mining. We cannot, and must not, let this undoubted nasty event be used to support nuclear power in preference to coal power—even though my opinion is that nuclear power is far preferable.
This event represent a failure to maintain an old (some reports say 60-years) dike or embankment that was clearly too close to houses and which contained a fluid that easily got away. It will take time to decide if those to blame are consultants, regulators, or the power plant operators. Most likely it is a combination of all of them, grown happy and complacent with age and the festivities of the season. But we repeat: this is no a mining-related incident. Let us protest vigorously if it is used for that purpose—the best defence is a comment calling attention to the truth on the errant blog.
PS: There is precious little intelligent reporting on this incident. Here, for what they are worth, are some “readable” postings:
Scientific American on the story although a pretty miserable report in my opinion.