Giant Toxic Coal Ash Spill Threatens Animals

Kelly Hearn in Kingston, Tennessee
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2009

It's been called the Exxon Valdez of coal ash—a wakeup call for a fossil fuel industry.

But the recent toxic ash spill in Tennessee is greater in scope than the 1989 oil spill, and despite what some conservationists are calling very real threats, the ash disaster has so far inspired apparently little concern for local wildlife.

On December 22 a billion gallons of poisonous sludge—largely coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning—broke through an earthen dike at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The torrent half-buried area homes and elevated long-running health concerns over heavy metals in the ash.

Those worries, experts say, are not limited to human health. In addition to the animals killed by the initial spill, wildlife may be threatened for years by the trace amounts of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, thallium, and other toxins in the coal ash.

(Related: "Heavy Metal-Eating 'Superworms' Unearthed in U.K." [October 7, 2008].)

"We're concerned about tremendous human health threats but also serious biological threats to animal species," said Stephen Smith, veterinarian and director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"Already mussels, snails, and aquatic species are in grave danger, but no one seems to be talking about it."

Other local animals that could be affected include river otters, mink, muskrat, ospreys, and black-crowned night herons, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. No endangered species are believed to inhabit the spill region.

Toxins Accumulating in Animals?

Of the dead animals retrieved from the spill site so far, none had died of poisoning, according to Dave McKinney, chief of the Environmental Service Division of the Tennessee government's Wildlife Resources Agency.

"They were either buried in mud or stranded when a water surge pushed them into fields and forests and then receded," McKinney said.

Even so, he said, "there is certainly the potential that toxins will bioaccumulate"—build up in animals' bodies. "But we're talking months to years, not days to weeks."

Continued on Next Page >>




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