Last month's coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee was one of the worst such environmental accidents in history: 1 billion gallons of poisonous sludge, the byproduct of coal burning, was dumped in Kingston.
The scope of the spill is almost 50 times greater than that of the Exxon Valdez and, as cleanup efforts continue, it is not yet clear just what effect the accident will have on the town and the environment. Even so, the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant claims that people and the environment are safe.
Watch the story on the Discovery Channel's "Focus Earth" Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Planet Green TV network.
There are two ways to store coal byproducts: wet and dry. Many people consider dry storage safer because of minimal risk that harmful metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic will leach into groundwater and make their way into the tap. Wet storage, however, requires large ponds to be filled with ash and water. It was in one such pond that the retention wall broke, sending the muck into Kingston.
The U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., convened a hearing Thursday to question Tennessee Valley Authority president and CEO Tom Kilgore. He admitted that the spill was nothing short of disastrous and vowed to continue investigating the cause.
Kilgore promised the TVA he would remain in charge until everything was cleaned up. Immediately following the hearing, Boxer spoke exclusively with ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff in an interview set to air this weekend on "Focus Earth" with Bob Woodruff.
Boxer apologized during the hearing for neglecting to oversee the TVA.
She told ABC News, "I'm annoyed at myself because my committee has jurisdiction over the TVA ... and they're the ones that run this particular facility and others. I should have done more to be proactive and I feel bad about it.
"That's one of their prime missions; to be an environmental steward. It's in their mission and they just haven't lived up to it."
Counting on New Administration
Boxer suggested that the lack of federal coal ash regulation is part of the problem. As far back as 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency considered adding coal ash to a list of hazardous materials but the coal industry successfully stopped this classification, arguing that the costs to meet such standards would be astronomical.
Individual states oversee coal ash regulation but, as Boxer pointed out, "This is a national problem. We have these kinds of holding facilities all over the country so why should the people in one state feel safer than the people in another state."
In addition, the TVA previously opted for less expensive fixes on the very ash pond that was breached. "So here's the point," Boxer said. "The TVA turned its nose up at the way to fix this, which would have cost $25 million and now we're facing multi-billion dollars in recovery."
So what can be done? Boxer says she hopes that the new administration will make headway.
"I'm going to ask Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator coming in, if she would ask for studies on all these facilities," she said. "And I must add that the EPA right here has the right, now, to regulate. They just have never done so and it's shocking to me ... I hope she'll move without legislation to do something."