chapter  6
22 Pages

“What We Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You”

In Eastern Tennessee, in the early morning of December 22, 2008, a waxing moon was reflecting in the chilly, placid, waters of the Emory River. Suddenly, a fly ash impoundment of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant collapsed. The force was almost indescribable, sending 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash into the river and along its shores. Within minutes, the cascading ash spill covered a major portion of a highway, a rail line, and almost four hundred acres of land. In the process, it destroyed three homes, damaged forty-two pieces of property, and affected several hundred residents. When the explosive force subsided, the fly ash deposits in the river were as deep as thirty feet and as high as sixty feet on land. Smaller ash burgs ten to twenty feet high were scattered throughout the moonlit landscape making it appear more like a distant planet than the idyllic landscape that existed only moments before. The surrounding countryside seemed transformed in geologic time rather than in a few horrific minutes. Rick Cantrell, who lives in a trailer above the river, compared it to an earthquake and said that the torrent of ash sounded like a freight train rushing through the woods. The changes the ash spill would bring to the lives of local inhabitants would be equally dramatic, and the uncertainties that would ensue as incomprehensible as the changes in the land. Most of the nearby residents, who had already gone to sleep, would awaken in their beds a long way from home, hearing the wash of helicopters circling overhead.