A blog reader named Dorothy Griffith, a photographer who lives in Banner Elk, N.C., emailed us with an interesting account of how she spent Christmas day:
I was stirring the syrup for a pecan pie when the phone rang. My friend Brenda Boozer called to tell me there had been a massive environmental disaster close to home, and could I possibly get away to take photographs?
Three days earlier, a retention pond for fly ash (a waste product from burning coal) burst in Kingston, Tenn., spilling an estimated 1 billion gallons of sludge containing years’ worth of waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority‘s adjacent coal-burning power plant over an area of 300 acres, Griffith explains.
According to a Times article on the spill, hundreds of coal plants around the U.S. have similar ponds, and this incident “reignited a debate over whether the federal government should regulate coal ash as a hazardous material.”
Here are Griffith’s photos of the spill, along with excerpts from her description of the incident.
“Within minutes we were in the air with Jim Lapis, a pilot with South Wings who volunteers his flight time and airplane to take people over environmental challenges like mountain-top removal sites and this: the biggest toxic spill our country has so far experienced.”
“After flying about an hour, we arrived over the spill site. Below were several holding ponds. From the air, these large structures look like rectangular ponds surrounded by grassy berms, and they’re adjacent to the Emory River.”
“One of the ponds had obviously burst and drained. The berm on one end had fallen away, water was discharged, and the ground around it was chewed up. The earth had spilled and spread out over what may have been a field.”
“This waste includes the byproducts that we don’t want going into the air: mercury, selenium, and arsenic, among other dangerous chemicals. The T.V.A. had put this stuff in open-air ponds right next to a river and community to settle into the ground and probably into the community’s ground water.”
“The site had trees down, roads and driveways missing, and big boulders of earth, or what looked like gray earth. Two houses were buried nearly to the eaves in this muck. It looked like a moonscape.”
“Nearby, the Emory River had been choked by a gray film. Gray framed the shore for miles, lining boat houses, docks, and edging the forest where it met the water. It was obviously a foreign addition since the color was so different from the river water and it appeared to sit on top of the water. Since it was Christmas, all appeared quiet.”