It was someone else's problem, as it always is, the way the faceless forces endlessly convince us that it should be, lest we all discover how badly we've been played.KINGSTON, TENNESSEE—It was a decade or so ago that I stood on this same windy point above the Emory River basin. At the time, the view from this vantage looked very much as though a big chunk of the moon had fallen into the river–a huge gray mountain running toward sheer cliffs on all sides, earth-moving machines strewn like a child's Tonka trucks at all angles along its face. And a guy who was preparing to move away told me about the night he looked out his front window and saw trees marching by his front door.
On the night of December 22, 2008, a Tennessee Valley Authority dike holding back a virtual reservoir of coal ash—what they call "slurry" here—gave way and sent 5.4 million cubic yards of the slurry pouring down into the Emery and Clinch Rivers. On land, the great wave of toxic sludge—mercury, selenium, arsenic and Christ alone knows what else—gouged the landscape, sending trees walking down into the valley and wrecking homes all along the waterfront. Thomas Hendrickson was driving home from working the night shift that night when the police shortstopped him at the bottom of Swan Pond Road. (Swan Pond was, at this point, buried under a gigantic chemistry set.) "I had to take the long way around to get home," Hendrickson said. "That was the way it was for a long time."