On this morning last year, residents along Swan Pond Road and the Emory and Clinch Rivers in Roane County, Tennessee, stepped from the year’s longest night’s darkness into the dawning aftermath of ashen, apocalyptic-looking cataclysm.
One county resident later said the mammoth scale and magnitude of the phenomenon was better described as a “geological event” than a mere “spill,” or as TVA’s public relations department toyed around with calling the largest inadvertent coal-ash dump in U.S. history, a “sudden, accidental release” of a “large amount of material.”
Just after midnight Dec. 22, 2008, a Tennessee Valley Authority-owned coal-ash waste containment dike was transformed by precipitation into a billion-gallon rolling, roiling, rain-saturated tsunami of ooze and goop.
The frigid molten mass slid across the Emory River and its Swan Pond wetlands toward the Emory’s confluence with the Clinch River, enveloping, damaging or destroying everything in its path, including boats, boathouses, docks, roads and railroads, bottomland farm fields and many people’s homes.
That no one died or was seriously injured is even today almost as stunning to comprehend as the event itself. Had the calamity occurred during, say, the bustle of a summer afternoon rather than the dead of December night, the result could have been one of the darkest days in living Tennessee memory.
TVA later reported in it’s “Root Cause Analysis” that a “combination of the high water content of the wet ash, the increasing height of ash [mound-storage], the construction of the sloping dikes over the wet ash, and the existence of an unusual bottom layer of ash and silt were among the long-evolving conditions that caused the ash spill at Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008.”
For a little perspective on the gargantuan nature of the 5.4 million cubic-yard fury of fly-ash slurry, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation deputy commissioner Paul Sloan told state lawmakers last session, “If you took the Great Smoky Mountains and you subdivided it in one-acre tracts – over half a million acres – the amount that spilled would be sufficient to put about 11 tons of ash on every one of those acres.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of the detritus — a whole lot — is still hanging around the area. The cleanup effort underway is massive, as it has been since just after the event. And the remaining residents nearby who haven’t been bought-out by TVA say they’re weary of the constant confrontation with the unyielding truck and train traffic, the mess, the health worries, the broken dreams and the giant New Deal-era federal corporation that has caused it all. They describe living in a state of constant headache, both figurative and, for some who say they’re suffering physical symptoms as a result of the ever-present ash residue, real.
“The Swan Pond Community prior to Dec. 22, 2008 was a normal but beautiful community, with neighbors that have been neighbors for 50 plus years,” said local resident Randy Ellis, who serves on the Roane County Long Term Recovery Committee and is vice chairman of the county’s Community Advisory Group.
“We had the beauty of the mountains and the river. This time of the year you could drive through our community and see the Christmas lights and the different families gathering at homes to celebrate the holidays,” he said. “Now, as you can see around us, what people are left are surrounded by empty houses bought by the TVA. Our once beautiful and quiet neighborhood was turned upside down.”