The Metro Pulse Guide to Sludge

The one do and 10 don'ts for living with 1.1 billion gallons of fly ash


1. Do try to deal with it as best as you can.

The last big thing that happened to East Tennessee in 2008 was an ecological catastrophe. Wonderful. The Kingston Fossil Plant fly ash spill was the largest of its kind ever: 5.4 million cubic yards—over a billion gallons—of wet fly ash broke through a TVA retention wall outside of a storage pond, covering hundreds of acres in Roane County.

And now, in 2009, we have to live with it. Here are some tips: Take a vacation to a place not covered in sludge. There are many of them. And when you get back, there will be slightly less sludge (though, hopefully, not less outrage).

Since this situation is being monitored by every environmental activist in the Southeast, it could lead to some major reforms, including better storage for coal ash and, maybe, a re-examination of this whole "clean coal" thing.

And finally, if you're one of the unlucky few who took some property damage as a result of this spill, rebuild! Fly ash can be recycled and turned into bricks and concrete. Just think of it as 5.4 million cubic yards of lemons that you can turn into a billion gallons of lemonade.


1. Don't call the sludge "sludge."

All right, easy on the outrage there, Captain Planet. Let's start using a term that's a little less accurate, er, unpleasant sounding. We'd like to get some tourism dollars here some time in the next decade. Here are some alternative suggestions.

  • What the TVA's been calling it: An "ash slide," which sounds fun, or a "release of ash," which sounds liberating.
  • Names that sound like food: Slurry, coating, frosting.
  • Folksy names: "TVA's Christmas Present," a "Tennessee snowstorm," or a "Kingston mudslide." Yee-haw!
  • Ambiguous Names: The "thing that happened," or the "stuff out in Kingston."
  • Newspeak: Doubleplusunwater

2. Don't breathe too much.

If or when all that fly ash starts to dry, its status becomes upgraded from a potential waterborne hazard to a potential airborne hazard. Fly ash contains a lot of silica dust, the primary component of sand and glass. When you inhale it, it's essentially the same thing as inhaling glass dust or asbestos. Bad news: Though weather forecasts are calling for rain this weekend and early next week, this week's been pretty dry. But luckily, TVA has offered to set up sprinkler systems in the affected areas. Which reminds us...

3. Don't run through the TVA sprinklers.

It's tempting, but you're not going to enjoy mucking around in all that slurry. It's too cold right now, anyway.

4. Don't take pictures of the fly ash.

Last Friday, David Cooper and Matt Landon, activists with the environmentalist group United Mountain Defense, were temporarily detained by TVA police after taking several depressing pictures of the unattractive sludge spill. TVA officials told media outlets that the men were behind a barricaded area and refused to leave.

5. Don't drink untreated river water.

Fly ash contains, among other things, toxic heavy metals like arsenic, beryllium, and thallium. Not drinking untreated river water is probably a good idea all the time, but especially when 5.4 million cubic yards of gross has been introduced into the ecosystem. But, come to think of it, if you're generally accustomed to drinking untreated river water, you're probably not reading this, or anything else.

6. Don't swim in untreated river water.

(See above.)

7. Don't read the Dec. 13, 2007, issue of Scientific American.

Especially don't read the article "Coal Ash is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste" by Mara Hvistendahl. If you have to read it, though, read it beyond that provocative headline. According to ORNL scientist Dana Christensen, who was interviewed in the story, any adverse health effects associated with radiation in fly ash are comparatively low, about three or four times less than the risk of being hit by lightning.

8. Don't adopt a baby seal.

Remember how cute those things weren't after the ExxonValdez spill? Just imagine them swimming around in a billion gallons of wet dryer lint.

9. Don't allow TVA to continue storing fly ash this way.

This "don't" is dedicated to Roane County Executive Mike Farmer, who this week called for TVA to build updated and improved storage facilities for coal ash.

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency released a risk assessment of coal combustion waste. The report said that unlined landfills and ponds for coal waste can significantly increase cancer-causing agents in areas near coal-burning plants. The Kingston plant, which was built in 1955, uses an unlined pond to store fly ash. And according to the report, so do all of TVA's other coal plants, except for the Paradise Plant in Kentucky (which uses a clay-lined landfill). In October, TVA itself released a preliminary report that showed leakage in the Kingston retention wall.

10. Don't allow your attention to veer too far away from this.

It took a little while for this incident to get any national media attention. But Christmas is over and it has some momentum now. Mainstream media, environmental groups, and bloggers are taking TVA to task, calling for ever-more frequent updates on environmental quality and cleanup efforts. Keep in mind that the EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation are on the scene monitoring the cleanup. This thing may have already outlived its life on the front page, but here's hoping it stays in our minds for all of the weeks, months, or maybe years it takes to clean this mess up.