The Tennessee Coal-Ash Spill, in Pictures

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.”




Wow. Amazing economics story.


Maybe not applicable, but there is no clean coal industry and this sickens me.


And that about wraps it up for the "Clean Coal" contingent . . .


Nate - this could easily turn into a good economics story: cost benefit analysis of coal vs nuke plants.


Thank you for your pictures. They really make the spill more real and bring the environmental damage done close to home.


For good measure, why not throw in a few pictures of garbage dumps? It really would show that the "clean civilization" argument is totally bogus.

Witty Nickname

Great Post! Sorry you didn't like it Nate.

Lynne Harty

Way to go Dot! Great shots showing how awful this event was. Thanks for your persistence in getting your photos and experiences out so that more can learn about this. I'm forwarding this link to a lot of people.


Great shots of a significant problem. Thanks


Time to go nuclear. Best option available.


My professor said that coal ash is radioactive. No one seems to be talking about that. I would love to hear if anyone is measuring the radioactivity of the spill site and how that might impact residents.


Here's a link to a Scientific American story on coal ash radioactivity, which is so relevant all of a sudden. Who would have thought it was more radioactive than nuclear waste?


The TVA is a government operation. Before the government is encouraged to start telling others what they must do to prevent this sort of thing from happening, how about the government takes reasonable precautions in it's own operations?

The world's worst environmental disasters are typically created by governments and government-granted monopolies, far more than by private industry.

Only in the NY Times is a government created environmental disaster evidence for putting the government more in control of similar operations across the country....

scientist at large

This is more than a challenge. It's an image of our future if we don't take the matter in hand. Look at it!


Time to go nuculear!

Split, baby split!

Steve Cohen

Great coverage of a really appalling, disgusting situation that seems to have largely been swept under the rug. Good going Griffith and Mengisen!


This is a great post. It's hard to imagine without the photos. Reminds me of a good book I read a while back about public relations called "Toxic Sludge is Good for You" about the PR industry and the government. Worthwhile reading.

Usually Named

Gotta love those New Deal-created government entities.

scientist at large

Dear Brandon;

I don't know what is best. I doubt that you do. What we seem to agree on-- is that this is one of a number of worst case scenarios. Tapping the sun is not bad. Bought my husband one of those watches that work when exposed to light. It was great till my daughter, then five, threw it on the floor. The store stopped carrying them or I would have bought another one. What I learned from buying such a watch is that this has to be a concerted/unified corporate effort.


Yeah. Best option.

Chernobyl photos