Decades of contamination by the TVA

Wade Payne/AP
2008 Industrial spill revealed decades of radioactive material dumping

The Kingston coal ash spill was the nation’s largest industrial disaster to date, releasing five times as much toxic material as the 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Workers like App Thacker now wonder what they were really exposed to during the cleanup. Coal ash is toxic in its own right, but additional radioactivity may have made the dredged material more dangerous than the ash alone…

While no one was killed by the 2008 coal ash spill itself, dozens of workers have died from illnesses that emerged during or after the cleanup. Hundreds of other workers are sick from respiratory, cardiac, neurological, and blood disorders, as well as cancers; the jury in a 2018 court case determined that many of these ailments could have been caused by long-term coal ash exposure. Whether or not the coal ash alone was responsible for the deluge of illnesses — and whether or not TVA was aware of exposure to additional hazards that it did not disclose to workers — remains an open question.

Just a few miles downriver from this site, the Emory meets up with the Clinch River in a wide oxbow. Because of the spill’s proximity to the Clinch River and Oak Ridge, TVA knew the disaster could have stirred up not only coal ash — which federal guidelines do not classify as “hazardous” waste, despite its dangers — but also material that the government considers unambiguously hazardous as well. Between the 1950s and 1980s, so much cesium-137 and mercury was released into the Clinch from Oak Ridge that the Department of Energy, or DOE, said that the river and its feeder stream “served as pipelines for contaminants.” Yet TVA and its contractors, with the blessing of both state and federal regulators, classified all 4 million tons of material they recovered from the Emory as “non-hazardous.” It took six years to clean up the entire site, during which workers toiled in the ash unprotected, without the gear routinely required at hazardous waste sites.

RTFA in its entirety. A case history of federal and state regulators killing workers and residents, poisoning them with cesium-137 and mercury for decades. It didn’t matter if those politicians were Democrats or Republicans. The production of nuclear weapons for Cold Warriors superseded any regulation which would have prevented waterways from being turned into open sewers for industrial and radioactive waste.

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