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Meanwhile the Kingston plant was incinerating 5 million tons of coal every year and dumping the ash at the edge of the river. Every so often, bulldozers would sculpt bottom ash, the heavy and coarse material left in the furnaces, and dirt into the dike, raising it a few feet one year and a few feet more another year, then add interior barriers until it was actually several ponds—cells, in the jargon—enclosed by one massive levee. It grew longer and wider and higher, but the sides were always seeded with grass so that after more than fifty years it had come to resemble a well-manicured mesa, standing upwards of sixty feet high on eighty-four acres of riverbank. And if a little ash water seeped out, which it had for decades, or part of the dike blew out, which it did in 2003, the TVA dutifully patched the walls and mopped up the puddles, and nobody fretted about it because nobody paid it much mind.
The dike was not merely breached. It did not spring a leak. It collapsed, most of the northern and western walls disintegrating into mud and mush just before one o’clock in the morning on December 22. When it fell away, the wet ash behind it—more than a billion gallons of gray slurry, a hundred times more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez—gushed out with the fury of a reservoir bursting through a dam, which, really, was exactly what it was.
But it’s still filthy. Getting it out of the ground, depending on the method used, is at best dirty and dangerous and at worst ecologically ruinous. Washing it—literally cleaning it—is a grimy process that often involves filling valleys and hollows with lakes of poisonous black water held back by dikes not unlike the one that collapsed at Kingston. Burning it releases an assortment of toxins that, according to one study, kill an estimated 24,000 people each year—people who, on average, die fourteen years before they otherwise would have. The Kingston plant, for instance, primarily uses a low-sulfur coal and has scrubbers to capture nitrogen oxides, yet in 2007 its stacks still vented approximately 50,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 12,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,700 tons of hydrochloric acid, 329 tons of sulfuric acid, and ten tons of ammonia, as well as lesser (though not insignificant) amounts of arsenic, barium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, vanadium, and zinc—all of which, in case that sounds like a multivitamin, are not things anyone should be breathing. That’s the inventory from only nine furnaces in east Tennessee; there are 1,470 more incinerating coal in 616 other power plants across the country—roughly a third of which have no pollution controls at all. Finally, there is carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is helping steam the planet to perhaps catastrophic temperatures; coal burned in the United States each year releases about 2 billion tons of CO2, a full third of the nation’s entire output of that particular gas.