Late last year, a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant’s waste retention wall failed, dumping 5.4 million cubic yards of coal-ash sludge on Kingston, Tennessee. The December spill covered more than 300 acres and inundated the Emory River.

The Kingston spill is the largest in U.S. history.

Sludge is a dense, black substance that is mildly radioactive. According to the New York Times, this spill — of one billion gallons — was enough to cover more than 3,000 acres with sludge one foot deep. Early reports estimated that clean-up could be complete in six weeks. The current estimate is “years.”

Significantly, there has been little access to the site for anyone who doesn’t live inside the clean-up zone. With police restricting site entrance to those who live or know someone who lives inside the boundaries, media coverage has been minimized.

I photographed the spill site twice, and both times had to go through TVA’s public relations department. To get inside the boundaries you have to either sneak in (not recommended unless you don’t mind a scuffle with the local law) or be escorted in by TVA. This arrangement makes sense for TVA, who, as the country’s largest public utility company, hopes to control the tone and amount of press it receives.

The lock-down policy limits the quality of news coverage, at least visually. There are back roads that take you to spots where you can see the coal ash, but with visibility of only a quarter mile or so. It’s difficult, nearly impossible, to see any of the houses that have been damaged by the spill. So pictures we’ve seen of the disaster have mostly been of the ash by itself; it looks fairly benign, out of the larger context of who has been harmed and what has been destroyed.

Some exceptional photos were taken by those who arrived in the first few days after the event, — like the Knoxville News-Sentinel and others with access to fly-overs (thanks to SouthWings for letting us use some of their work in the slideshow).

A third of the seven million tons of refuse that TVA’s produces annually is used for construction material, most notably concrete mix that ends up in roads and bridges. But about half of the left overs end up in sludge ponds and other retention areas, according to a report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. America’s nearly 600 coal plants produce for 54% of all electricity consumed annually, by far the largest single source of energy in the nation.

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