While well downstream of the main tailwater fishery on the Clinch River in Tennessee, the massive flood of sludge containing concentrated heavy metals and carcinogens that spilled from a TVA coal plant last Wednesday shows just how fragile the nation’s infrastructure is when it comes to handling energy waste. Almost as amazing is the fact that coal ash deposits, which exist in hundreds of locations in the U.S., are not given hazardous-material status by the federal government. Which probably explains why an earthen dike was the only thing standing between 300 million gallons of toxic waste and the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers.
“The breach occurred when an earthen dike, the only thing separating millions of cubic yards of ash from the river, gave way, releasing a glossy sea of muck, four to six feet thick, dotted with icebergs of ash across the landscape. Where the Clinch River joined the Tennessee, a clear demarcation was visible between the soiled waters of the former and the clear brown broth of the latter.” Shaila Dewan in The New York Times.