On the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, residents along Swan Pond Road and the Emory and Clinch Rivers in Roane County, Tennessee, stepped from the year’s longest night’s darkness into the dawning aftermath of ashen, apocalyptic-looking cataclysm.
One county resident later said the mammoth scale and magnitude of the phenomenon was better described as a “geological event” than a mere “spill,” or as TVA’s public relations department toyed around with calling the largest inadvertent coal-ash dump in U.S. history, a “sudden, accidental release” of a “large amount of material.”
Just after midnight, only a few hours before, a Tennessee Valley Authority-owned coal-ash waste containment dike was transformed by precipitation into a billion-gallon rolling, roiling, rain-saturated tsunami of ooze and goop.
The frigid molten mass slid across the Emory River and its Swan Pond wetlands toward the Clinch River, enveloping, damaging or destroying everything in its path, including boats, boathouses, docks, roads and railroads, bottomland farm fields and many people’s homes.
That no one died or was seriously injured is even today almost as stunning to comprehend as the event itself. Had the calamity occurred during, say, the bustle of a summer afternoon rather than the dead of December night, the result could have been one of the darkest days in living Tennessee memory.