Fallout from the Kingston Ash Spill

Last December 22, a retaining wall at the Kingston Fossil Plant (run by the TVA) gave way and dumped over a billion gallons of coal ash slurry across a great swath of Roane County, Tennessee. It was one of the worst, if not the worst, man-made environmental disasters in our country’s history.  People’s homes were swept away. Nearby rivers and streams were poisoned.  I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, or what you’ve heard about it.

The experience, even over here in Nashville, was that it was just a little something that happened, not that bad. It’s only been in the ensuing months, as the TVA’s obfuscations have become clearer that the scope of the disaster is coming into focus.

All along the way, it seems, we have made deals with the Devil.

Oh, the TVA. Yes, it brought electricity to the South and with it, air conditioning, and with that, modern civilization (I over-simplify some, but only a little).  In exchange, though, there are towns sitting at the bottom of vast lakes, ‘lost’ cemeteries filled with loved ones. And we haven’t even touched on coal itself, a devil’s bargain if ever there was one. Yes, it brings money into regions that otherwise would be dirt poor, but at the cost of people’s health and their lives. They sometimes blow the tops off of mountains to get to it. And, in order to burn it for electricity, the TVA has to have somewhere to put the fly ash that’s a byproduct of the process.

And then the TVA gets a couple of decades of lax oversight and the ability to be a private enterprise when they need to be and a government enterprise when it suits them and before long you have 5.4 million cubic yards of muck spilling out of a pond the TVA claimed only held 2.6 million cubic yards.

And now, the TVA is shipping the coal ash they’re cleaning up from the site to Perry County, Alabama. The New York Times article is interesting and heart-breaking.

To county leaders, the train’s loads, which will total three million cubic yards of coal ash from a massive spill at a power plant in east Tennessee last December, are a tremendous financial windfall. A per-ton “host fee” that the landfill operators pay the county will add more than $3 million to the county’s budget of about $4.5 million.

The ash has created more than 30 jobs for local residents in a county where the unemployment rate is 17 percent and a third of all households are below the poverty line. A sign on the door of the landfill’s scale house says job applications are no longer being accepted — 1,000 were more than enough.

But some residents worry that their leaders are taking a short-term view, and that their community has been too easily persuaded to take on a wealthier, whiter community’s problem. “Money ain’t worth everything,” said Mary Gibson Holley, 74, a black retired teacher in Uniontown. “In the long run, they ain’t looking about what this could do to the community if something goes wrong.”

It’s true that Roane County, Tennessee, is whiter than Perry Country, Alabama, but I was a bit taken aback by the claim that Roane County was richer.

And then I remembered that Oak Ridge is in Roane County, which does indeed mean that the residents of Roane County are, on average, richer than the residents of Perry County. But I don’t think I have to spell out for you what the citizens of Roane County had to accept in order to get that higher income. Another devil’s deal.

So, when it comes to putting this fly ash someplace, the charges of racism have been flying–environmentalists are claiming environmental racism because the fly ash is going to a predominately black community; some folks in the community are claiming that it would be racist to deny them the fly ash, like “Here come the white folks to protect the black folks from themselves.”

And, frankly, from where I sit, both claims seem to be oversimplified but also probably true. Isn’t that the pernicious thing about how we do racism in America?  There can be racism on both sides and probably is.

Still, I like how Southern Beale puts it: there is something really fucked up about asking anyone to choose between poverty and poison.

(Cross-posted at Feministe)

4 thoughts on “Fallout from the Kingston Ash Spill

  1. Oak Ridge isn’t in Roane County. It’s in Anderson County, which is just north of Roane. My mom grew up in the Oak Ridge area. 75% of her family worked in one of the plants until fairly recently. My (white) grandfather lost a leg and eventually died from an extremely rare form of cancer that he probably got from working with radioactive material every day. I also have family in Roane County.

    I’m going to keep my thoughts on your devil’s deals to myself for now. Hopefully I’ll be feeling a little more civil about it tomorrow.

  2. Very slight correction to W’s post. I moved from OR less than two years ago and while nearly all of it is in Anderson, a very small part (the “Roane County part of Oak Ridge,” natch) is in the adjoining county. Rarity Ridge is the development there, along with the $500K price tag on mostly-unsold homes.

    My view of Roane Co. is that it’s very white, very rural, and very poor.

  3. W., well, I hope it’s obvious that I my heart is broken for folks who are asked to choose between putting themselves in grave danger and starving. I call it a “Devil’s deal,” because it’s no choice at all. There is no “wrong” thing to do. It wasn’t wrong for anyone to go work at Oak Ridge. It’s not wrong that Perry County wants that money and those jobs.

    But the price folks pay is terrible, and, it seems to me, it’s too much to ask.

    But what can you do? Letting folks starve is no alternative.

  4. ‘devil’s deal’ was pretty much my hot button in that post. ‘deal with the devil’ is a pretty common cliche and literary device wherein someone gets punished by unintended consequences for trying to get something for nothing.

    All things considered, I don’t think that’s what you meant. But that’s only because of the years I’ve been coming and reading what you have to say. Without that context this post could easily be interpreted to be poor people shaming or ‘they got what they deserved’.

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