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One of the highlights of a week-long conference I recently attended in Chattanooga, Tenn. was a bus trip a few miles north, to the Kingston Fossil Plant, one of 11 coal-fired electricity generating plants owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The plant burns coal to turn water into steam to drive generators to provide electricity to about 540,000 homes.
It also was the site, in the early morning of December 22, 2008, of a massive release of coal ash into nearby rivers and a lake. Without warning – at least without warning considered by plant managers, an 84-acre pile of ash broke loose to befoul the waters below – and above – the plant. The ash mass hit the Emory River with such force the downstream flow could not immediately absorb it, so the ash, and the river it rode, flowed backward several miles, and created “ashbergs” in the watercourse.