Backyard Talk

10th Anniversary of Nation’s Largest Coal Ash Spill

By: Sharon Franklin
As we look back at the holiday season, it is only a reminder to Mike Dunn of the health issue his wife Sandy encountered, who was a 40-year employee of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  Mike is reminded of the 2008 Christmas Eve when Sandy left their Alcoa, Tennessee home and her family and headed to the Kingston Fossil Plant, where 7.3 million tons of coal ash was spilling from a busted dike.  Sandy knew nothing about coal ash, even though she worked in the safety division of the largest producer of coal ash in the nation.
Six years later, Sandy was dead, poisoned, her family says, by coal ash dust that her bosses said was safe.  According to the Dunn family today, more than 30 workers at the clean-up site are now dead, and more than 250 are sick, and many more may be sick.  
Coal ash contamination and its affects are also being reported in other areas, such as the one reported by Molly Samuel, a reporter at WABE, an Atlanta, Georgia Public Broadcasting radio station.  Ms. Samuel reported that the toxic coal ash pollutants are leaking into groundwater from 92 percent of Georgia coal-fired power plants, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.
The report Georgia At a Cross Roads  documents widespread groundwater contamination at Georgia’s coal ash dumpsites   It reports that eleven of the state’s 12 coal-fired power plants are leaking pollution into the state’s underground water supplies, and 10 of these 11 polluting plants are owned by a single company, Georgia Power.  The report outlines the effects of coal ash, and explains the hazardous brew of toxic pollutants such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, radium, selenium and other toxic elements. The toxic elements in coal ash can cause cancer, heart disease, reproductive failure and stroke, and can inflict lasting brain damage on children.  Additionally, the report noted that Georgia Power owns all of the contaminated waste sites that are located near lakes and rivers.  The Environmental Integrity Project attorney Abel Russ, one of the authors of report said “Georgia is at a crossroads with respect to the toxic legacy of coal-burning.”  
The report concluded that “We do not know the extent to which the tested groundwater is used for drinking, but regardless of use, these levels represent a significant deterioration of water quality by coal ash.  Releases of these pollutants to the environment are particularly troublesome, because once they leach into groundwater, the harmful pollutants do not go away or degrade over time.”

Backyard Talk

Deepwater Horizon, 5 Years Later

On April 20th 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers and triggering the spill of nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The accident wreaked massive damage on marine and coastal ecosystems, caused myriad negative health effects in cleanup workers, and gutted the Gulf Coast economy. Five years later, it remains the largest offshore environmental disaster in the history of the United States. Environmental effects from the disaster linger and the debate around offshore drilling for oil continues. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast residents are still writing a story of resilience and recovery in the years following the disaster.

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, water quality was drastically impaired in the Gulf of Mexico. Concentrations of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS) skyrocketed in the waters off the coast of Louisiana, and were also found at elevated levels in the ocean near Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The spill threatened dozens of marine species with elevated risks of extinction. Residents and cleanup workers experienced health effects from exposure to both the toxic organic compounds that composed the spill, and from the cleanup process itself. Toxic dispersants were used in the cleanup process, causing illnesses that gravely affected cleanup workers.

After five years the acute effects of the spill have passed, but marine species are still dying at accelerated rates and tar balls continue to wash up on the shores as oil that was buried under sand at the time of the spill resurfaces. Researchers have also begun to investigate the possibility of long-term health damage in cleanup workers. As debate surrounding offshore drilling continues, the BP oil spill has added a horrific cautionary tale to the annals of what many hope will be the key to solving our energy crisis.  The lingering environmental and health effects from the spill ensure that the BP oil disaster will not soon be forgotten…and thanks to one groundbreaking citizen journalism initiative, neither will the stories of those most closely affected by the disaster.

The Bridge the Gulf Project is a community media project founded in 2010 following the BP disaster. For the past five years, the organization has worked to elevate the voices of Gulf Coast communities as they work to enhance sustainability and social justice. The Project is organized by a network of community leaders, experts and writers, and spotlights stories that are seldom heard in the mainstream media, while providing training and support for those engaged in regional movement-building. Many of the stories center on environmental activism. On April 19th, one blogger wrote of being arrested at BP America’s headquarters; another recent post covers environmental justice mapping initiatives; and last month, one BP spill cleanup worker spoke out about his health issues. However, media featured on the site also cover topics ranging from immigration to racial justice.

In the immediate and long-term wake of environmental disasters, it is often the stories of failure and tragedy that dominate the mainstream media. Bridge the Gulf offers an alternative to this often dehumanizing coverage, elevating the voices of those most responsible for the complex recovery from an environmental accident that intersects with many other social and economic injustices.

To learn more about the Bridge the Gulf project, visit