Disaster Coming Downriver

Caitlin Myers

Posted February 12, 2020

Community Knowledge and Water Justice in East Tennessee

A Land We Drink From

East Tennessee summers are full of storms. The humidity and damp gathers in the air and coalesces on every surface. Throughout the morning the air grows heavier and heavier, the clouds gather. Sometime in the afternoon, it breaks. The wind picks up and the birds go quiet. Forks of lightning slash through the sky and the storm blows the heaviness away. By the time the sun sets, the air feels light again; the earth smells like ozone, sharp and fresh. We live in one of the most water-rich regions of the world, a craggy haven of pillowy moss and newts and deep-rooted trees. The headwaters of the whole eastern half of the United States originate in Appalachia.

Southern Appalachia is also rich in mineral resources. Historians have long called this part of the world an extraction economy; its people haul cartloads of precious coal from the mountains yet remain poor. Disaster comes here, and often, but it does not come as an act of God. Disaster here is dug and spilled, contaminates water and air. It comes when creaky infrastructure, fifty years old or more, inevitably gives up the ghost, spilling toxic waste material from coal mining into the ecosystem—like it did in Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008.

In the first months after the Kingston coal ash spill, people observed “ashbergs,” giant islands in the river comprised entirely of coal residue and coal ash in the Emory River. Kingston is a town small enough for word to get around quickly. Locals would see each other at stores and gas stations, anxiously acknowledging the new layer of dust on their cars every morning, little dust devils whipping up along the road, and clothing that needed washing after a couple of hours outside. Coal ash is a lethal byproduct of combustion composed of heavy metals and arsenic. Today, there are stricter storage requirements, but as of 2009 they were weak or nonexistent. (1) The waste is usually stored in ponds as a liquid or in landfills as a solid—the dump in Kingston was a bit of both. And once in a while, after a heavy rain, dikes break. The land absorbs the coal ash as best it can, but the spillage floods the hydrologic system with a toxic slurry. Here, the geologic landscape is karst and limestone, full of holes and tunnels that pour directly into a dense network of streams, often feeding into household wells and field irrigation.

In the higher profile cases of Flint, Michigan, or post-Katrina New Orleans, the media discourse often paints residents of disaster-stricken areas as perpetrators or victims; rarely do they become heroes. From workers on coal ash sites to citizen scientists, ordinary people have found themselves stewarding the watersheds that sustain their communities alone. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—the New Deal-era hybrid of corporation and federal agency that provides and regulates electricity for Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia—is the most regionally notorious of these agencies. The lackluster TVA response to the Kingston spill forced people to learn how to test the quality of their own air and water and come to their own conclusions.

Years later, the Clearfork Valley, a community experiencing the withdrawal of the coal industry, used techniques and tactics present in Kingston to work toward the protection of their own streams and rivers. The Clearfork Water Monitoring Project emerged with the goal of crowdsourcing scientific knowledge to help grow their local bargaining power. In Kingston and in the Clearfork Valley, community science and organizing have converged to build regional knowledge and observation into power, recognized by community members and harnessed toward real, lasting change.

A Timeline of Eco-Catastrophe

Here are the facts as they were reported.

Tennessee saw record rainfall in winter 2008 after a long period of drought. One cold night in December 2008, a coal ash landfill in mountainous Roane County, somewhere halfway between the Smoky Mountains and Nashville, broke under the strain of the sudden change. An estimated 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash slurry, waste products from the Kingston Fossil Plant operated by the TVA, spilled into the Emory River, a major artery for the state’s drinking water. Estimates initially put the damage at 1.7 million cubic yards of flooding. By Christmas, the estimate had more than tripled to 5.4 million cubic yards, with some parts of the land buried six feet deep in gray sludge. The $1.1 billion cleanup was not completed until 2015. In 2017, the Emory River’s ecosystem was declared recovered. (2)

Here are the unsanctioned facts, unfolding in parallel.

There was somehow more sludge sprawled over the land than the TVA had ever admitted to being in the landfill in the first place. Every couple of years, a new article comes out on the scale of the destruction. (3) Workers without respirators loaded the coal ash and hauled it off to Perry County, Alabama, where it resides today, seeping into the groundwater beneath acres of farmland. Perry County is predominately black, marking another injury in the process of the cleanup: environmental racism. The Kingston community didn’t ask for things to fall out that way, but Perry’s drinking water was contaminated all the same.

Between 2008 and the end of the initial phase of cleanup in spring 2010, there were a variety of lawsuits and legal actions on the part of the Kingston community and organizations including Greenpeace. In the ten years after the spill, many workers died from the effects of spill cleanup while even more fell sick. A suit finally was settled in favor of the workers in November 2018—but by then it was too late for many, and the fundamental nature of the problems they face has not been solved. The workers have the chance to seek damages, but whether they pursue it is up to them. (4)

The Kingston community response to the coal ash spill rippled throughout Tennessee. After watching the Kingston community response to the spill and supporting efforts to hold the TVA accountable, community members in the Clearfork Valley trained themselves in some of the water testing methods used in Kingston. This led them to create the Clearfork Water Monitoring Project, which continues today. Though the Project does not directly engage with Kingston, energy use, specifically from the coal industry, remains the common denominator. And at the base of energy use in Tennessee is the TVA: buying and selling energy, handling waste disposal, and running the plants.

Kingston Community Response

The true breadth of damage remained murky for weeks after the spill. The Kingston Fossil Plant strategically released only the most basic information. Though the spill happened in the town of Kingston, many responders came from Knoxville, the closest sizeable city. Among them was Bonnie Swinford, a science teacher, environmentalist, and community organizer. (5) Swinford had tangled with coal companies before over mine permitting processes and had a healthy suspicion of industry executives and their mollifying words. The TVA reassured locals that coal ash was completely harmless, but Swinford and some friends hit the pavement and knocked on hundreds of doors to check on Kingston residents and assess their needs. The TVA kept a low profile as the volunteers, both community members and people from nearby towns, bought flats of drinking water to distribute and set up community meetings. Kingston residents called the TVA to ask about the ash only to be met with voicemail. In the rare cases when they weren’t, they were told the air and water were clear and free of contamination.

Community members documented the damage for the remainder of that winter. One video, so unbelievable that National Geographic links to it in their recent in-depth retrospective on the spill, depicts the famous dust devils that haunted the roads of Kingston. (6) The video shows a volunteer calling a TVA representative about the problem, only to be told there was none according to their air monitor, and that it was not necessary to wear a respirator. Workers on cleanup duty, in fact, were asked not to wear a respirator at all, and were reprimanded if they did. The TVA feared it might make them look bad. (7) Swinford recalls that the TVA air monitor was nowhere near the landfill, or the neighboring community.

Community members gathered in increasing fury, and now they had data to back them up. A research team from Duke University, Avner Vengosh Research Group, conducted research on the effects of coal ash contamination, and Dr. Tamara Mareia of Internal Balance, a medical clinic in Nashville, tested blood for heavy metal poisoning. (8) Swinford called in scientists from Vanderbilt University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Duke University, among others, for air monitoring and found, over and over again, that TVA’s test site was not catching the extent of the problem; or if it was, the public had not been made aware. (9) A growing coalition of locals and out-of-town volunteers passed out information about water safety, tabled at community events, bought massive flats of drinking water and distributed it door-to-door. This direct action and mutual aid began to build, block by block, trust and affinity between the community and out-of-town volunteers.

Community members grew angrier about the TVA’s mishandling of the spill with each conversation. Armed with the information they had gathered over the winter, folks attended packed-out community meetings to determine how and when to confront the people in charge. TVA representatives realized that if this situation wasn’t handled, and quickly, they would start to look incompetent. In response to calls for a federal environmental intervention, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent in a community liaison in May 2009. (10) Many now suspect the appointment was little more than an effort to refocus attention away from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The EPA representative formed a “Community Action Group” whose main purpose, according to Swinford, seemed to be hosting a series of long, ponderous meetings wherein almost nothing was accomplished. (11) Community members dropped out one by one, frustrated and overcome by the  addition of the lengthy meetings to the demands of daily life. Swinford recalls that it seemed to many as though decisions were passively made; no one could quite recall who had made them, nor when, nor why. (12) Six months passed, then a year. The cleanup was never quite done, but there were constant reassurances that the higher-ups were listening and that community members were seen. When the coal ash was sent off to Perry County, the EPA hearings made it look like a result of community input. Though some were happy the problem was out of their hands, others, Swinford notes, were angry that the consequences of TVA’s actions had been shunted off to an even poorer community than Kingston. (13) It was a feeling of powerlessness: fighting for their own health had only created worse conditions for someone else.

Of course, this was not an accident. The TVA needed to quell civilian anger to keep the extent of the disaster hidden. The fledgling resistance in Kingston was put to a stop within short order, thanks to gentle, and prolonged, misdirection. In that time, the contamination had spread quickly and deeply throughout the hydrological system of the Cumberland Mountains. To this day no one is quite sure how much remains.

Citizen Water Monitoring Grows in Tennessee Coal Country

Volunteer efforts dispersed over late 2009 and into 2010. Some stayed in contact with regional environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, but many lost faith or lost touch. Swinford went back to Knoxville, saddened but having learned the hard way how easy it is to get sidetracked on the road to doing the right thing. Volunteers from elsewhere in the region—Nashville, Knoxville, and other parts of Appalachia—were not ready, or able, to commit their lives to Kingston.

Yet even as the rebellion began to fade away, the information the Kingston community aggregated remained in hard drives and online databases through groups like Appalachian Citizens’ Enforcement. (14) The volunteer scientists may not have won an immediate and complete cleanup of the spill—but their research was not forgotten.

Bonnie Swinford, frustrated from the lack of preparation for the spill, found her new skills transmittable to a community where she often went to work and see friends: the Clearfork Valley, near the border with Kentucky. Though the valley hasn’t seen as dramatic an incident as the Kingston spill, researchers who might study the area could conceivably find comparable health consequences for its residents. The valley’s disaster unfolded over generations, rather than all at once, intensifying the class stratifications already present there. Often maligned by the wealthier parts of the two counties it straddles, the people of the Clearfork Valley are known in Appalachian community organizing circles for their legacy of activism. This, together with the energy for do-it-yourself  born out of the 2008 spill has led young people, even in the Clearfork Valley, toward a leadership role in the fight to hold big energy accountable for their actions.

DJ Coker was just starting high school during the Kingston coal ash spill, but the “death cycle of coal,” as Swinford calls it, has followed him throughout his life. (15) His unincorporated community, a town called Duff, used to be coal industry heartland. As deep mining gave way to strip mining, specialized workers, often with the benefit of higher education, began to replace the blue-collar coal miner who is so often stamped in the American imagination. Professionalization meant the workforce dwindled, and with it, the power that labor had gained. Coal companies can only deliver hundreds of jobs to a small community as long as there’s coal in the ground. Their departure means a combination of lost jobs, lost tax benefits, and the environmental degradation of unearthed minerals and stripped-down, mudslide-prone hillsides that leave rural counties with more problems than before.

Coker never had the opportunity to take a job in the coal industry but grew up surrounded by its telltale signs. Most people around him don’t drink their tap water, and fishing in the creek would be not only foolhardy but nearly useless considering how few species remain. Rare cancers and other chronic illnesses abound in the valley. Though few studies have been done on the valley’s public health crises, it is likely that they would find an abundance of similar health issues to other coal-impacted communities throughout Appalachia. Coker may not have written papers on the subject, but as a local expert with long-term experience confronting the impacts of coal, DJ, in an unconventional way, is one of the foremost experts on this issue in this place. (16)

The Valley has lost people. Now containing roughly 3,000 residents, a fraction of its former size, this portion of the coalfields has seen nothing but trouble from what is lauded as Appalachia’s trademark industry. Coker knows it’s not easy for young people to stay in the mountains. Armed with a degree in biochemistry and an EMT certification, Coker seems like a candidate for someone who, within the American Dream framework that is so carelessly applied to working class young people, might have a rare chance to leave home for further education and higher-paying work.

Yet seeing Coker through that framework fails to recognize that he can still be a scientist in the Clearfork Valley. Though his field research is done without the benefit of institutional access or academic funding, he lives alongside people with a history of do-it-yourself information gathering. Coker has used his degree for something non-academic and entirely community-oriented in nature: citizen science water testing.

Swinford and Coker sharpened their organizing skills by obtaining certifications in macroinvertebrate identification and basic water chemistry. They learned how to test pH and metals from the organization Virginia Save Our Streams. (17) Potential surveyors look at various insects through a microscope, take a test, and then go out into the field to catch and identify a few critters in the wild. Swinford and Coker worked to make connections with these organizations to grow the Clearfork Water Monitoring Project. They travel together for trainings and are supported by a wider rural organizing community that has grown up around water justice and public health and knows that clear and safe drinking water is an intrinsic human right.

The Clearfork Water Monitoring Project focuses on measuring acidity, conductivity, water temperature, and dissolved solids near active mine sites. Without expensive equipment, it is difficult to detect specific metals, but these tests can hint at the lasting and destructive displacement of earth that the coal industry brings. (18) All phases of mining stir up heavy metals that sit deep in the ground, like iron, thallium, molybdenum, arsenic, cadmium and hexavalent chromium. These metals, when ingested or respirated, accumulate in the bloodstream and cause long-term damage to organ tissue over the course of prolonged exposure. Their half-lives—the time the metals take to decay by half—is far longer than a human lifetime. (19) They are linked to cancers of the bladder, the gut, the liver, the pancreas, and the brain, as well as to tooth decay and reproductive disorders. (20)

The Clearfork Water Monitoring Project volunteers also respond to local complaints. If someone’s backyard creek is stinking, or running a funny color, they can come over on short notice, slip on their waders, and test the water. But for every neighbor who does worry about the condition of their water, Coker says, there are a few who would simply rather not. Perhaps the changes have been too slow to notice day-to-day. Perhaps it’s less painful to think the streams have always been a funny color, to believe there were never fish in the first place, than to admit things didn’t always used to be this way.

Working with the Clearfork Water Monitoring Project is not easy, but Coker finds that it’s always rewarding. He likes teaching his neighbors to understand the environmental warning signs around them.  Besides, much of the labor is paperwork and data entry—but the rest is an adventure. Muddy fieldwork means taking a truck out into the wilderness with some basic testing equipment and coolers to keep the water samples at a proper temperature. The days are long but often end with a picnic or a cool dip in a cleaner stream, if it’s warm out, and for people who live far away from one another, it’s crucial bonding time.

Water testing days often deliver surprises. A few years back, two older volunteers, both of them famously stubborn and determined local grandmothers, got stuck in a streambank that mostly consisted of oxidized iron and deep, stinking mud. Coker describes the two women, one tall and lanky and the other small and round, hip-deep in orange goop. “We call it the Big Orange Crapshow,” says Coker matter-of-factly. The iron deposit is still there. It has outlived both volunteers, Vickie and Carol, who were best friends and passed away of painful cancers, one after the other. Vickie’s daughter still goes out on the long water testing trips, tromping through the mud in all seasons, north and south and east and west of the mine, through the thickets and briars. Community water testing may have fallen by the wayside in Kingston, but sparks came to Clearfork and still quietly burn there.

Jacobs Engineering and the Cost to Workers

Back in Kingston, the cleanup workers are still coping with the fallout of the spill and the scale of the accompanying tragedy. In tragedy, as always, is indignity: ten years on from the Kingston coal ash spill, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) ran a full-page ad in a local paper to thank contractors Jacobs Engineering for its part in the clean-up effort. (21) The job was done, and done well, they say. The ad cost $1,225 to run, according to investigative reporting by a local newspaper. (22) This move incensed hundreds of former workers who had been repaid for their part in the cleanup with rare cancers and heaps of medical debt. A year before, when they first sought legal action for their sicknesses, the TVA stood behind Jacobs; here it was happening again. The workers, many of whom were bedridden, took it upon themselves to seek justice from a federally owned corporation with a massive budget and thousands of well-paid staff. (23)

Consequences of the coal ash spill are coming to fruition. Workers from the Kingston community, contracted by the TVA through Jacobs Engineering, helped clean up the spill and many are now sick or dying. At the time it looked like a decent job: well-paid, though temporary. The TVA said you could eat a pound of coal ash and nothing would happen to you but indigestion. (24)

They ate their lunch on top of dust piles and in many cases were prohibited from wearing respirators out of fear of public outcry. Almost all of these workers contracted pulmonary disorders and cancer—an unusual cluster of illnesses linked by medical studies directly to coal. (25) In painting the cleanup as a success, in congratulating Jacobs engineering on a job well done, the implications seems to be that sick workers are mere collateral. The success of the cleanup will continue to elude them. Some of the affected families might still get a settlement from the lawsuit, but they will not get their lives back. (26) According to Tennessee reporter Jamie Satterfield’s continued reporting on the issue, TVA workers are still being exposed to toxic coal ash in much the same manner as before, despite public scrutiny. (27)

Other workers have vocally expressed outrage at the second coal ash dump in Perry County, Alabama, uniting with groups like Uniontown Concerned Citizens to fight for justice across geographic and racial lines. (28) These connections have growing to do, and the Perry County landfill has not gone away, but the community action and solidarity from Kingston have drawn attention to the problem. (29) The early digital documentation of the spill, especially the videos, have become relevant again in the wake of a massive lawsuit against the TVA on behalf of the workers. These volunteer-created digital records show that the Kingston community was subject to lethal and constant poisoning and that the dangers were known at the time but ignored by people with the power to make plans for the cleanup. Nonetheless, the lessons learned from that time live on and have grown in Kingston and coal-impacted communities like Clearfork, building a network of knowledge and community power in the ongoing struggle against coal’s stranglehold on Appalachia.

The Future of Regulatory Agencies and Citizen Advocacy

The Clearfork Water Monitoring Project uses their data to request permit hearings, speak at public meetings, and advocate for the area through state and federal lobbying. These interactions have taught them about the systems of power, but it is still a frustrating exercise. The past couple of years have been dispiriting as hard fought legislation like the Stream Protection Rule have been rolled back with ease. The raucous meetings and volatile energy of the early 2010s, when Kingston rebelled, and when anti-strip mining activism all over the Appalachian region peaked, have given way to quieter forms of movement building.

Environmental justice movements, like all movements, go through cycles of change. Some times are for action, for visibility and street protest; at other times, the perceived quiet belies the slower and longer-term work of organization-building. When street protests and other forms of visible rebelliousness crop up, they are preceded by years and years of slow base-building and steady recruitment. At community events, meetings start with just three people, then five, then seven. Swinford says this is a building period. As she and the Clearfork community members see it, this is a great way to make connections while biding time until people who are friendlier to their cause come into power.

Some people, who preferred not to be named, recount getting blank looks from TVA employees at public hearings upon asking why they weren’t doing their job. Though some believe these agencies have a fundamentally good purpose, many other East Tennesseans who critically engage with entities like the TVA, EPA, and other environmental departments have come to fear that their public agencies, founded to democratize energy and serve the working-class and poor rural consumer, no longer consider the public to be their main customer.

The Tennessee Valley Authority as it currently stands is in a position to change energy use and water pollution regulations in the state for good, should they choose to. However, as they develop an “Integrated Resource Plan,” or IRP, for the future, the TVA intends to continue relying on coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric, all of which have capacity for infrastructural failure and subsequent long-term environmental degradation. The agency acknowledges that coal is on its way out, even recently announcing plans to shut down several plants, but are they ready to deal with the contaminants that will never go away? (30) Communities like the Clearfork Valley and Kingston stand as reminders that what you dig up doesn’t disappear. The worst collateral from years of poor storage is probably yet to come as more and more floods plague this region and fifty-year-old infrastructure continues to deteriorate.

Long-Term Organizing for Community Power

In the meantime, the citizens of East Tennessee coal country will keep watch. Coker, Swinford, and others like them will continue to lead community members through the muck and mire, gathering knowledge and building a base to activate the next time environmental disaster comes around. The Kingston spill was not the first, and as Appalachia experiences increasingly extreme weather, it is unlikely to be the last. Between floods, fires, and mudslides, this vibrant and ecologically diverse region will undergo climate strain. The catchment ponds and sludge pits and power plants are not getting any younger. As long as government agencies fail to catch the cracks in the system before they spread, the work of citizen scientists like Coker and Swinford and the work of disaster relief volunteers will continue to bear the load.

Though crisis can fracture community, its inevitability under capitalism is something that community can also use to build shared knowledge and mutual aid networks like those in East Tennessee. Communities on the front lines of ecological catastrophe are hard at work building strength for all the fights to come. Following a legacy of both militant and nonviolent resistance in the mountains, within both the labor and environmental movements, these Tennesseans are building a repository of knowledge and strength to bolster ongoing struggle. The regulatory agencies responsible for the cleanup and containment of toxic waste have shown, time and again, that only pressure and outcry will hold them accountable to the public, to prioritize public health over the interests of private energy producers. Those of us looking for the kind of organizing that it will take to survive the constant crises that climate change brings would do well to listen to what frontline communities like Kingston and Clearfork have to say, and follow their lead.

About the Author

Caitlin Myers is a writer, educator, and community organizer living in Knoxville, Tennessee. Caitlin currently works with the Southern Connected Communities Project to design and expand community-owned rural broadband networks in East Tennessee. Caitlin writes as a freelance journalist, poet and playwright. Caitlin covers environmental justice, rural infrastructure, secret Southern histories, and building community power through infrastructure ownership and the democratization of knowledge. Her work can be found in Scalawag Magazine, 100 Days in Appalachia, and on stage around Knoxville. Find her on twitter at @stopitkatie.


  1. Kendra Pierre-Louis, “The Alabama Landfill That Brought Noise, Health Woes, and a Lawsuit,” Inside Climate News, July 5, 2016, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/29062016/alabama-landfill-brought-noise-health-woes-and-lawsuit. back to text
  2. “EPA Response to the Kingston Coal Ash Spill,” Environmental Protection Agency, https://www.epa.gov/tn/epa-response-kingston-tva-coal-ash-spill, accessed May 29, 2019. back to text
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This article first appeared here in the inaugural issue of the relaunch of Science for the People Magazine Volume 22, number 1, The Return of Radical Science. People can subscribe to the magazine or support SftP through Patreon (information available here.)