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The Tennessee Valley Authority Ash Spill

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Background and Introduction

            The Tennessee valley Authority (TVA) ash spill occurred following a breakage of an ash Dyke at the Kingston Fossil Plant located in Roane County. An estimated 1.1 billion gallons of ash was released in the 1 a.m. incident that occurred on December 22, 2008. According to Kirshke (2009), the spill came in form of a grey sludge formed as a result of mixture of by products of combustion of coal and water at the steam power plant. The sludge traveled across the neighboring land covering about 300 acres. A lot of damage was caused as homes were extensively destroyed, a road was washed out, a major gas line was ruptured and many trees were downed (Kirshke, 2009). This is said to be the largest fly ash spill in the U.S history and would take not less than four weeks to clean. This was the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) estimate but the Southern Environmental Law Centre (SELC) proved otherwise when they said the cleanup would probably take months to clear. Gil Francis Jr, the TVA spokesman issued a statement saying that they were taking the measures required to stabilize the runoff. A sequence of congressional hearings followed the incident to establish the cause and the responsibility of Kingston Fossil Plant. Immediate orders into the investigations on health and environmental consequences were launched to prevent any damages. Cleanup also had to start immediately.

            A number of organizations got involved in the incident mostly to establish any kind of harm that the spill was likely to cause. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Southern Environmental Law were actively involved in environmental investigation to determine any harm caused on the soil, air, water and fish in the rivers (EPA, 2009). The Tennessee Department of Health worked closely with these two bodies to interpret any potential harm on human health as a result of the incident. An attorney of Earthjustice which is an environmental group based in Massachusetts, Lisa Evans accused the government of being too lenient on the issue and blamed the firm for being ineffective in its safeguards given the previous cases of 2002 and 2006. She cited that the spill could have been avoided.

            The ash ponds are actually a technology meant to prevent pollution of the environment. The ash which is a result of combustion of coal is collected instead of letting it out into the environment. Mixing it with water helps in easier storage of the ash in retaining ponds. Here it is left to settle before being stored in drier ponds which are made of earth. In normal circumstances the sludge should stay in these ponds but a strain on a weak dyke caused the TVA ash spill.

Ethical Issues

            A series of ethical issues emerged from the TVA ash spill starting with the environmental damage and health concerns caused by the spill. It is good that the TVA accepted the responsibility of the incidence and made necessary arrangements to clear up the mess. However, they failed in their duty towards citizens and the environment. The code of ethics requires that they be protected from any harm resulting directly to the plant’s activities (NAR, 1991). As indicated earlier, extensive damage occurred as a result of the ash spill causing losses to the residents and the government. Kant’s duty ethics recommend acting out of duty and respect for the moral law instead of inclination (Garret, 2006). Inclination in this case refers to acting for self gain or to your advantage. TVA had not taken it upon themselves to act out of duty to prevent a spill like the one that occurred probably because constructing new ponds would be too expensive on their side. It therefore raises an ethical issue of whether they care about the welfare of the citizens and the environment which are likely to suffer harm from their activities

            The issue of honesty and complete disclosure on the ash spill also raised several questions. Gil Francis, the TVA spokesman issued a statement that the sludge was not toxic immediately after the incidence even before the tests had been done (Kirshke, 2009). This can be seen as a way of avoiding responsibility which probably would end up exposing the public to potential danger following the spill. The given estimate of contents of the pond before the incident highly differed with the actual volume released. TVA was later unable to account for this difference raising an ethical issue of TVA not providing prompt disclosure of information and giving the wrong estimates of the possible damage.


            The TVA ash spill made history as the largest spill in the U.S covering around three acres. This was a case of improper standards taken by the plant to effectively store its coal waste such that a dent in their ponds caused a massive leak that posed danger to both the environment and human beings (EPA, 2009). About twenty two residents had to be evacuated following the spill which would take months to clear. The ash spill also posed a threat to water contamination as traces of toxic metals such as thallium, chromium, lead and cadmium were detected in the water (Dewan, 2008). Residents near the spill also reported respiratory problems apart from the consequent stress and anxiety (Earth Portal, 2009). Fish and other creatures living in the neighboring Emory and Clinch Rivers died. This was mostly blamed at the plant’s neglect of the storage ponds such that they did not realize that they were getting too weak for the load.

            The plant failed in its responsibility to protect the residents of the area and ethical issues raised indicate that TVA tried to save themselves from expenses by failing to maintain proper standards through regular inspection of their waste storage facilities. Considering that this was not the first time that a spill had occurred at TVA, questions were raised as to whether the plant was taking any measures to protect the residents, workers and the environment by preventing spills (Health Portal, 2009). The plant should have taken more precautions in maintaining the ponds so that a spill could not have occurred.

            The government seems to have failed on its side by being too lenient on the regulations governing disposal of wastes by industries and plants like Kingston Fossil Plant. EPA which should make sure that the industry’s waste disposal methods and facilities are up to date is blamed for allowing the plants to check their own standards. EPA has been relying on these standards which are likely to be substandard as plants try to save on costs of maintenance (Oko, 2009). This is what caused the ash spill at TVA. Most studies reveal that the spill could have been prevented if extra precaution had been taken.


            From the TVA ash spill case of December 2008, significant recommendations mostly point at ways of avoiding similar incidents from occurring in future. TVA has to be careful so as to ensure the ponds that are used for the storage of the ash waste are properly constructed making sure they are strong and can handle the highly viscous waste. The residents need an assurance that such kind of a spill that has resulted to huge property losses will not occur again in future. They should also involve expert geologists to establish the ability of these ponds which are usually earthen to hold large volumes of fly ash. The plant should consider conducting major inspection of other storage ponds at the plant so that any weak ones can be repaired or replaced. TVA realizes damage that could occur as a result of such disasters hence the dire need to prevent them through taking precautionary measures. The company should take an initiative to indemnify residents who suffered major losses as well as fund research on the risks likely to arise.

            The disaster is an urgent challenge to the government to protect the citizens from any toxic spills not only from TVA but on all other plants. The government must intensify the rules on the manufacturing plants on how to dispose waste materials. The waste should be disposed in such a way that it will not pose any danger to the human or animal life whatsoever. The case of TVA shows that improper precautions to prevent leakage from waste storage facilities can cause detrimental effects (Oko, 2007). Due to the extensive damage caused, the government should take initiatives to ensure that the residents of the area are compensated for the loss they suffered. This can be done in collaboration with TVA. Free medical checkup should also be organized to establish any health problems that may have resulted.

            There is need for more tests by the health department and the environmental bodies to ensure that the consequences of the spill do not pose a major threat to the environment and the health of those living around the plant. EPA should require that all coal waste be drained to strong storages and that this waste is tested for any risk it may pose to the environment and human health (Kirshke, 2009). EPA should also ensure that use of pollution controls such as leachate collection, composite liners and monitoring systems are put in place. Surface waste storages should be prohibited and if not so they should be expanded and reconstructed. PASEL should also advocate for the closure of risky facilities to eliminate any other threats in the long-term.


Dewan, S. (2008). Water Supplies Tested after Tennessee Spill. New York Times, December      13.

Earth Portal (2009). Residents Near TVA Ash Spill Report Health Problems. Retrieved on        April 7, 2009 from http:www.earthportal.org.news/?=2218.

Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). EPA’s Response to the TVA Kingston Fossil

Plant Fly Ash Release. Retrieved on April 7, 2009 from www.tva.gov.

Garret, J. (2006). Kant’s Duty Ethics. Retrieved on April 7, 2009 from             http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/ethics/kant.htm

Kirshke, D. (2009). Kingston TVA Ash Spill. Tennessee: Tennessee Department of Health.

National Association of Realtors (1991). Code of Ethics & Standards of Practice. National         Association of Realtors.

Oko, M. (2009). NRDC Urges Immediate Cleanup and Stronger Regulations of Coal Waste.      Washington D.C: Natural Resources Defence Council.

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