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Prize Staff Reflections from the 23rd Annual SEJ Conference

October 10, 2013

Goldman Prize staff member Ryan Mack recently returned from Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he spent several days at the 23rd Annual Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) Conference.

The five day conference seeks to improve the quality and accuracy of environmental reporting by fostering collaboration among journalists, government officials and industry experts.

Chattanooga used to be known as one of the most polluted cities in the United States, but in recent years has experienced a renaissance of green innovation and progressive thinking.

The SEJ website explains, “Chattanooga is born again. Once forgotten as a smog-obscured and industrially polluted backwater, this city- cradled by the Tennessee River-  is sought out today as a showplace of green technology and as an outdoor mecca offering a lifestyle increasingly in sync with Tennessee’s hardwood-ribboned hills, deep hollows and plains.”

At the conference, Mack had the opportunity to meet and greet existing and potential nominators for the Prize, as well as attend various workshops, panels and tours. A field visit to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)’s Kingston Fossil Plant, site of a disastrous 2008 coal fly ash spill, was particularly significant for Mack.

In December 2008, an earthen retaining wall of a coal fly ash pond at the Kingston plant collapsed, releasing over 1.1 billion gallons of highly toxic waste into the Emory and Clinch rivers, contaminating both surface and groundwater for miles around. Known as the second largest spill in United States history (after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill), the incident created a “biological desert” for nearly two years –  killing off most of the wildlife and vegetation in the area.

 photo f18f82b2-28e5-413f-a060-878a5cbc96a1_zpsf0d625b8.jpg
The Kingston coal ash spill remediation site

During his tour of the plant, Mack visited the remediation site, where recovered fly ash continues to be cleaned up to this day. Because coal fly ash is exempt from the Resource Convention and Recovery Act (RCRA), it is not considered hazardous waste and is therefore not restricted from being dumped into municipal landfills.

Much of the fly ash that has been recovered has been dumped in nearby Union Town, Alabama – endangering the health and wellness of the most economically depressed community in the state.

Although property prices near the spill and landfill sites have plummeted, the TVA has not offered monetary compensation to community members. The Kingston plant is still operational and nobody from the TVA was fired as a result of the disaster. Many in the community are critical of the TVA’s response to the spill.

For more information on the Kingston coal ash spill, click here.

To find out more about the SEJ conference, including a list of panelists and workshops, visit the SEJ website HERE.

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