Coal sludge disaster in the US




A house on the Emory River in eastern Tennessee in the US, buried in coal sludge that spilled from the nearby retaining pond. The environmental disaster has been described as one of the worst in US history.

Credit: Dot Griffith


A catfish pulled from a river in Tennessee, which shows its stomach contents full of sludge from the spill. The environmental disaster has been described as one of the worst in US history.

Credit: Dot Griffith

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Millions of litres of toxic sludge have spilled into waterways in Tennessee in what has been described as the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

A retaining wall from the coal-fired Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee broke, on December 22, 2008, unleashing more than four million cubic metres of ash slurry out into the community.

The spill from the plant, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) - a federally owned electricity provider - covered nearby land and flowed into the neighbouring Emory and Clinch rivers, where it has devastated the local marine environment and put residents at risk.

"It began to hit me that this was an environmental disaster larger than any before experienced in the US," said Shea Tuberty, a biologist from the Appalachian State University in the neighboring state, North Carolina.

Toxic concerns

Yet, the TVA assured the public that the ash material, a by-product from coal burning - is only dangerous if consumed. Local residents and Tuberty - who has been studying the fish in the affected rivers - aren't so optimistic.

The impact for humans could manifest in several different ways, according to Tuberty, the most likely risk arising if the ash dries out in the hot summer sun.

The ash is likely to become airborne, posing more of a threat to local residents' health as the material can cause lung irritation, and possibly death in the long term.

Toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, arsenic and lead, present in the ash could also seep through the soil, eventually reaching local drinking supplies. Although this is currently not an issue, locals are concerned what might happen if nothing is done.

"I realised that I have personally never been in the company of so many people in pain," said Tuberty. "The human impact comes at many levels - I believe there are few disasters of this kind that compare to this one."

Even three weeks after the event, clean-up crews have seen fish with scoured skin, lost scales, and damaged gills coated in ash. One catfish collected had 34 grams of ash in its stomach and intestines, 8 per cent of its total body weight.

Video of the event from CBS news.