[kml_flashembed fversion=”8.0.0″ movie=”https://www.burnmagazine.org/ss_essays/carlantapp-tva/soundslider.swf?size=2&format=xml” targetclass=”flashmovie” bgcolor=”#262626″ publishmethod=”dynamic” width=”800″ height=”777″]

Get Adobe Flash player

Carlan Tapp – Clean Coal TVA Ash Spill

For the past five years much of my work has focused around the social cost of producing energy in the USA. I continue to work in the Four Corners area of the Southwest on the Navajo Nation striving to photograph the true “cost” of using coal for the production of electricity. An on going project, Question of Power, shows the human condition as we mine, burn, and dispose of combustion waste using coal in the creation of electricity.

One part of the process which has received little notice is the combustion waste. In the burning of coal for the generating of electricity this is called “fly ash”. To date, fly ash is “unclassified” by the EPA and Federal Government. Current legislation may change that this year. If you do a little research you will quickly discover fly ash contains most of the toxic heavy metals which are left after the coal is burned. There are over 300 locations in the USA where this toxic material is simply placed in an outside pile.

On December 22, 2008 shortly before the Holidays, I caught a brief news flash regarding a “spill” of fly ash in Kingston, TN. at the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) coal burning electric generating plant. (My understanding is: the Kingston TVA Plant is the largest coal burning electric generating facility in the USA. The fly ash has been stored in an outside pond next to the river since 1954) With a little digging I found information stating 5.3 million cubic yards of “fly ash” had spilled into the Emory, Clinch, and Tennessee Rivers at Kingston, TN.. I thought it strange how it was down played in the news. Knowing fly ash is a highly toxic material this had the potential of being a major disaster.

A single look at my wife Nancy, she quickly said, “you need to go”. I drove to Kingston and spent eight days working there. I interviewed residents and photographed as much as possible. To be honest, TVA made it difficult to actually “photograph” the magnitude of the situation. The residents of the Swan Pond area I had the opportunity to meet openly shared their stories and concerns with me.

I plan to return to Kingston in the next few months and will give you an update.

Be strong, be safe,  Carlan


Photographs: Carlan Tapp
Website: www.carlantapp.com

52 thoughts on “carlan tapp – clean coal TVA ash spill”

  1. this is a terrible terrible story.
    how could this happen on our shores?
    why has there not been enough news?
    why more news on making fashion waves on european shores?
    what can i do?
    where would these people live?
    what will happen to them?
    will the toxic waste reach me
    or the waters that my children’s children will drink from?

    should i thank you mr. tapp for showing me this?
    or should i just toss and turn in my sleep?

  2. compelling stuff – well researched, sensitively presented. i felt that the slideshow lacked a coherent introduction to the specifics of the disaster, however having read the text introduction i can understand why, given the obstacles that were obviously put in your way to reveal the full story (as in the physical effects on the immediate landscape) – best of luck in continuing this project.

  3. Congratulations, Carlan; a compelling piece of documentary photojournalism and one that I hope you pursue long-term. With regard to your photographs presented here: the quality of composition and presentation is outstanding.

    I don’t usually ask for technical details but can you tell us about how you work? Film, digital, scan, film stock etc.

    It’s interesting to see details of the clean-up campaign: when all of the waste is sucked into the vehicle’s tanks, what happens to it then? It may be worthwhile to use the Freedom of Information act to find out.

    A paradox: we all want electricity but we all don’t want to live next door to one. We also tend not to ask too much until it all blows up in our face. I live close to an are where a proposal has been made to store gas underground, in disused salt caverns, despite the fact that a least one other cavern in the area has been used previously to store 47000 tonnes of toxic mercury sludge. Doesn’t seem like a good idea, does it. The proposal has been turned down twice and the company, Canatxx, has put another proposal forward for consideration. So when does no mean no?

    Thanks again for showing important work so well.



  4. “He could hear the river talking softly beneath him…. Beneath the sliding water cannons and carriages, trunnions seized and rusting in the mud, keelboats rotted to the consistency of mucilage…a thick muck shot with broken glass, with bones and rusted tins and bits of crockery reticulate with mudblack crazings…

    For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast..”–from the novel SUTTREE (about Knoxville)
    –Cormac Mccarthy

    We are bent and bowed by things of which we little realize we control, all is our vanity. Even more so, when we begin to alienate ourselves under the duress and delusion of what we seemingly control: nature. We harness this unwieldly strength, this often unforgiving largeness, in an attempt to substantiate our own hunger for things, our seemingly tireless need to control and to augment the world around us: all is our vanity. We scape up the black and rich belly of the earth as a way to sustain ourselves, because we can, and seldom do we realize that, with time, with onslaught, the earth gives back, in ways that will sheer away our vanities. why, so often, does it take the vengeful heartbreak of the earth to remind us that but once again we so often destroy under our hunger to deny. A heart-breaking, heart-breaking story Carlan.

    But, little does the earth count on the opposite of our human vanity, our remarkable strength of endurance and compassion. Again, i am arrested by the force and power of simple documentary work to remind us again what it is that is so precious and important in this life. The photographs are eloquent and powerful in their simplicity and their humanity. At the fore, is this luming leviathan, the giant black tongue of this ash spill creeping over and engorging the rivers and the land. And yet, above all this, despist the efforts of the TVA officials to contain the damage (and the coverage of the damage), the strength and reslience of these folk survives. I love how the essay progresses from the enormous destruction and devastation of this spill, which each frame showcasing this slick, slippery and unforgiving creature (i was thinking of the movie from the 50’s The Blob) and slowly, slowly as time and pictures pass before us, the story moves away from the destructive creature to the people of this small village/town along the knees of this river, so that we focus less upon the Ash spill itself than upon the REAL, the lives of these people and their homes and their livelihoods and their stories and their refusal to back down or be diminished which then leads to the most poignant and sad part of the story, which is the generation that, ultimately, will have to live with the toxic consequences of this disaster, the children, who long after the officials and managers and tamers and photographers have left, they will be stuck, as in a morass, in the welp of this toxic environment. And it breaks my heart….

    I also love visually the use of repetition. in the beginning how you creep in on upon this stranded pantoon boat (again like Suttree) from far to close up several frames later. The same is true with the EPA official testing the toxcity levels and later the people and their and then their children. A really moving and ultimately heartbreaking story, but strangely, i feel, in the end, no matter the duplicity of the officials to contain or deny, or the vanity of our efforts to plow away from the earth and into our lives the things which in the end usually fail us, i am left with an glimmer of hope, that long after this disaster, long as that may reign, there is still something stronger than our vanity, which is our reslience….

    a powerful and important story and I thank you for sharing it with Burn.

    bob black

  5. Dear Carlan,

    Terrible disaster. Great combitation of pictures and audio. It’s really good to see a proper combination of the two. Thank you for bring this story to us, wouldn’t have heard about it otherwise,

    all best,


  6. ALL!!!

    MAN, this essay is POWERFUL and beautiful….where is everyone??…

    this work needs some support :))

    great job Carlan! Besides my long comment, i fogot to add:



  7. A very solid piece of work, Carlan. Thank you. I saw the story on PBS some time ago, but your essay is infinitely more powerful. The soundtrack is priceless. I also very much appreciate the fact that you took the hard way of choosing to do this in B&W. (Now nobody take offense please, I don’t mean to discredit color, my own work is almost completely in color). What I mean is that it would have been easy to have really shocking images of the blackened landscape in color, but your images are much more powerful in such a subtle way.

  8. Amazing, disturbing story Carlan. I agree it needs an overview and more complete introduction. one thing to consider next time you go back, (the sooner the better], is to rent a plane and fly over the area. Helicoptors are very expensive, but awesome shooting platforms, a cessna is much cheaper, but harder to shoot from. Ask them to take the door off.

    Good luck.

  9. Strong, informative and classic. With works like these, I can feel and understand the strength of photo essays. To imagine that this is happening in USA is difficult and disturbing though!

  10. Carlan,

    Thank you so much for your work and your compassion regarding this disaster. Your work has been shared through out our community and beyond… and has had definite impact on a lot of us.

    We welcome you back anytime. Some things have changed (or need I say evolved) yet some things have remained the same.

    We hope to see you again soon,

    Penny & Evyn

  11. What an important and compelling essay. Environmental mishaps by government and big corporations make my blood boil. Maybe they should send the fly ash overseas, and they can make drywall with it.

    In my humble opinion, this is one of the best essays featured on BURN.

    Keep up the good work, Carlan.

  12. This is an incredible piece of work. The photography is amazing, but the story is beyond belief. I can’t believe we haven’t seen this plastered all over the news.

  13. Carlin

    This is by far one of the most heartfelt works I have ever seen on this subject. Your love for the people and the earth through the photography along with the audio is just breathtaking.
    There are so many people besides us who should see this story I will do my best to pass it on.
    Thank you.

  14. I remember being just appalled when this happened — there were some horrific images in the NY Times of houses swamped by the waste — and the knee-jerk response of the TVA saying it was no problem and not dangerous. And then, of course, it fell off the front pages and I just forgot about it like everyone else.

    You see one documentary after another, and movies like Silkwood way back when, and you just can’t believe how nasty and immoral the corporations are. But it’s true! And it’s not just corporations who don’t care about the environment — people in my local park can’t even be bothered to throw their litter away – empty bottles are dropped 2 feet from the trash receptacle.

    No one cares; we’re fucked. Simple as that.

    Oh, by the way — thank you Carlan — powerful work!

  15. Carlan,

    I will repeat what I told you last summer when I saw your presentation…
    Your work needs to be SEEN by the masses.
    PLEASE contact the Natural Resources Defense Council. I think they will publish this.
    For that matter I am going to write them also and send this link!!!

    Take care. Thanks for this.

  16. Carlan,

    Like many others have said, I can’t believe that this hasn’t been a more widespread story. Immediately it made me think of Erin Brockovich, and I was glad to see that she’s involved and you included her in this piece. The composition photographically was very good, as well as the flow and the edit. The soundtrack added the extra punch and gave the views of those directly affected by this disaster. The one thing I wonder about, however, is something that has rarely, if ever, crossed my curiosity…and that’s to see the images in color. I say that this thought has never occurred to me at any other time because I’m such fan of black and white, and generally think a lot of what I see in color should be converted, but never the other way around. I think it would have helped me to see the extent of the damage with more of an impact (such as blue waters turned into now black sludge). This is just a personal curiosity and not a criticism because I do think that this essay is powerful and beautifully shot just the way it is.

    Amazing work, although disturbing plight. I feel like we don’t always get the chance to hear, read, or see stories like this because the powers that be wield their authority just enough to cover their asses and anesthetize the general populous into not knowing or not caring. Or is our fault, as the general populous, to not seek out information and curb tragedies like this? Not to say that not knowing brought on the disaster, but a lot of regular people living regular lives don’t ask a lot of questions…it’s all along the lines of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or why care if it’s not directly affecting us? Then it blows up in our face and something has to be done. This is NOT at all a criticism of the folks affected by this disaster; it is simply a comment on the general human train of thought.

    Thank you for bringing this story to light. I hope that the conditions get cleaned up and the homelands of the affected folks get to be restored and in a safe manner. I look forward to seeing more of your work, Carlan.

  17. Carlan,

    Thank you so much for your work and committment to shareing our stories. You have made a positive impact on our community by showing that there are people “out there” that care about what is going on with this disaster.

    We look forward to seing you again,

    Penny & Evyn

  18. Carlan, I’d like to start by saying thank you. Thank you for being willing to use photography in a way that shines a light on such an appalling situation as the people of Kingston, TN are facing. To my way of thinking there is no higher calling than to be the one to blow the whistle on the hidden horrors that are preventable but often the result of corporate mismanagement/greed and governmental laxity. Photography as you practice it tells the story more graphically than the written word ever could. And your addition of audio interviews really brings it home.

    You remind me of Diane Wilson, the Seadrift, Texas shrimpboat captain who took on multibillion dollar Formosa Plastics who was making her county the most polluted in the country. How she could have used someone like you at her side! I’m sure you’re familiar with her amazing book, “An Unreasonable Woman.” I got to know Diane during one of my solitary peace vigils in front of the White House and oh-my-god is that woman for real!

    Your presentation is most effective and I hope it will be picked up by someone like Michael Moore who could make a difference. BTW have you contacted him? He’s always open to new projects. You can contact him through his web site at http://www.michaelmoore.com/

    in solidarity

  19. This story has to be told! Well done Carlan! And the story isn’t over yet.
    Your photographs show the mood of the place and I like the composition of your images: very clear and straight. Personally I would have prefered colour because black and white always looks a bit too much like art or artistic, even esthetic work. Nothing worong with it, but I guess that this black coal would be well visible in colour as well?
    The interviews with the people are very helpful. At first I thought it might be a little too long, but at the same time it is good that you showed the different problems that this coal spill has caused.
    The story needs some introduction. As said before, to me it would be helpful to learn more about this coal spill so I can understand better what has happened in the first place.
    What surprises me, is it that such a disaster seems to have happend more or less unnoticed. Is there no national outcry???
    Yes, it is always sad to see how careless we treat this place we call home. Unfortunately we are no spacecowboys, so we have to stay and live with our mess.
    However there is hope. Pollution has been extremely bad in Germany as well. We had acid rain, we had Chernnobyl etc., but for the last years there have been huge efforts to reduce it. Nature is strong and can survive, but we have to do some clean up first, use filters, find alternative ways to generate power etc. If we would be real greenies we would sell our cars and cut the electronic cable to our houses.
    It is a long process and it will take some generations to understand that our resources are limited. I admit, I drive a car and I have plugged my computer in a power thing. Hm, it will take some time…
    Looking forward to see how the story continues.

  20. Just received a note from David telling me he had published the TVA work. Thank you all very much for your very kind words and thoughts. Mike ask about how I work from a technical standpoint. My evolution in photography has been…film…digital…….film. So, back now to my old standards: Tri-X and Leicas, make prints, scan the prints, sometimes just scan the film…always contact sheets.

    When you stand back and look at something like this…you can only ask yourself…”where do I start?”. Collecting audio is a relatively new process for me. David and I were talking a few months ago about adding another element to challenge ourselves. Audio does this…you probably all know and understand this.

    The situation in Tennessee is difficult to put into words. As I mentioned, TVA made it very challenging to work. They had put the word out to residents to report anyone “strange” around the neighborhood with a camera. Here is a community where the major employer is TVA. Here is a community where the police force is TVA. It is a company town. A government funded facility turned into a private corporation. This was my first experience in this type of a situation. Different, but in many ways similar to working on the reservation.

    The residents I met and worked with became friends in a very short time. They were all most sincere, open, and willing to share their stories with me. Their concerns and openness created an environment which made it quite easy to make photographs.

    I agree with the comments…”we are all sitting here using electrons”…it is a way of life. But, what happens when it damages or takes away life? When it changes a culture, or forever changes the environment in which we live. I believe as photographers we have been given an incredible gift of making photographs. Along with that gift comes a great responsibility. Can we use our photography to show the human condition, to create awareness, to activate change, to create a window for individuals to “see” the “unseen”. I believe we can.

    Thank you all for looking at my story and passing the word along. This is a wonderful community of photographers and it is an honor to be a part of it.

    be strong, be safe,


  21. These are the stories
    that need to be told…
    which is why
    I so admire my friend, Sara….
    she started the aftermath project..
    and is now giving grants etc…
    And I believe as she does,
    its when all the PJ’s leave
    newspapers go on to different stories,
    that we need to continue to photograph…
    Sara deals with conflict torn areas,
    but it is in this spirit
    that we need to continue to tell our stories…
    Thank you for your work Carlan…
    Its people like you,
    and many other ‘Burn’ participants,
    that give me

  22. Carlan,
    Great work and a cause to fight for with images ans sound. Don’t give up on this project. Keep on with other locations if you can. Congratulations!

  23. Carlan, thank you for sharing this important work with us, and thank you for taking the approach of putting this disaster and your Four Corners work within the human context. These are the most powerful stories and the ones that need to be told. Too often in the recent past, environmental and social change movements have taken divergent paths to the detriment of both. This is changing and people are needed to tell the story and to inspire. Thank you for walking the path.

    I hope in the future you will offer an extended documentary workshop focused on the nexus of culture and the environment in the Four Corners area and threats to both. I would be honored to attend.

    Keep the faith.

  24. Carlan, further to my previous post. I’ve had a look at your website and I am impressed. It will take me some time to view everything but I can attest to your consistent, quality photography and vision. You are bookmarked here at Mike R!

    Best wishes,


  25. Carlan,

    At this point in the dialouge I am reiterating, but this is one of the most concise, sincere, and informative pieces of visual journalism I have seen in awhile. I watched the entire clip uninterrupted, then scoured my memory to see if I can remember this being reported… and I came up with nothing.

    Photographers are given a gift, and they do have a responsibility. I appreciate that you are responsible, and it certainly is inspiring.



  26. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of this tragic situation, so thank you Carlan for raising attention on this issue. Images are great. Honest, sincere, well composed. Great job. I also enjoyed the audio very much too. It was very well put together. My only criticism is that the piece is rather long. It gathered pace, due to more variety in (image) subject matter and audio narrative towards the latter half, which helped. But I still feel too long overall. Great and important work though.

  27. just to add… To help with the overall length, one option would be to separate the piece into chapters. This seems to be the most common method of dealing with longer presentations.

  28. panos skoulidas

    congratulations …
    You totally deserve all the support you can get..
    What you captured needs a brave heart, open mind..
    You are honest, fearless…
    Again you deserve all the support you can get..
    Big Hug.. ( from Bakersfield..)

  29. I am quite taken with the level of dedication and commitment to the topic..obviously something that more people need to be aware of and with work like this that may be possible. I found the expanse and diversity of the coverage to be excellent, and the audio to be very well done and effective. The photographs were, for me, a small part of what makes this piece work. I think it could easily be recut to make a very powerful radio piece for NPR.

  30. Erica, good to see your involvement with this essay. It is said that photographers are uniquely generous to other photographers and your efforts here prove the point.

    Best wishes,


  31. Carlan;

    Wonderful essay. I really enjoyed the audio component too. This is definately an important story and I wish you good luck in pursuing it.

    All the best; Ross

  32. Carlan,

    I loved the beauty of your work and the way it addresses the total horror of the context in a way that engages rather than by simply shocking us. There is a gentleness in your work that adds to the impact and asks serious questions of our participation in this world; we all benefit from the output of plants like that and yet… we are complicit in the destruction that has occurred. The audio is compelling and significantly adds to images.

    All the very best with your continued work.


  33. dearest mr. tapp,

    most essays are published here to get critique or just be out there. you are teacher yourself so DAH must have published this to get word out there for TN. my initial reaction (first comment) remains the same and still burns me.

    regarding your essay, i can see how much time you spent putting together just this project of an essay. not including the efforts of course of getting the pictures. i like the audio and the timing of the pictures is impeccable. especially the guy raising his hands asking for explanations and the other guy is turned away and the voice over irate. especially the voice over of the town hall meeting. most effective.

    you speak volumes in pushing forward awareness of the social cost of producing commodities. but always, somebody has to suffer? coal mines and asbestosis and the risk of being under the ground’s surface for miles, coal ash and your community, diamonds…

    thank you.

  34. Jordan Roberts

    Carlan, this story is both devastating and inspirational. The unnoticed scale of these disasters is truly frightening. Thank you for sharing your amazing work with us.



  35. Kathleen Fonseca


    I have visited your slide show several times. I knew what i wanted to say but i wanted to really know how to say it. I haven’t read any comments that have been posted by other viewers. I didn’t want to be distracted from my own reaction. Whatever story you tell in your pictures of the what, for me your most powerful storytelling is in the who; the people. What a huge talent you have to capture the hearts, souls and spirits, or in this case, their dis-spirits. Everything you have to say is written in their eyes, their foreheads, the slump of their shoulders, the desperate loss of the ecological balance in their environment is written there. The people are part of their earth and their earth has been ravaged. Their souls are likewise ravaged. After letting these faces sink in, i went back to the other photos, the “water”, the gray lifeless sludge, the hideous destruction of our land at the hands of the unscrupulous. God, it pisses me off…

    Wonderful work..please tell Nancy thank you for her support. And thank YOU for such a powerfully felt passion that drove you and continues to drive you to tell us all about it.


  36. This is a great piece of work. It makes me cross I’m not seeing such important work on the front pages. It amazes me that so much main stream news is crap, either gossip or conjecture. The pictures are great and the audio really makes the whole thing powerful. Well done.

    Do you ever take pictures non polluting energy? It would be an interesting contrast between this and a community run by solar panels.

  37. Carlan. Thanks to the jolt of memory from Patricia and Cathy, i remember you. in Santa Fe. I was in the audience when you spoke at the workshops. the power of you is overwhelming. your voice and your presence are compelling. your investigative eye and commitment not to let things hide is admirable. it looks like people on this forum will help you in doing something. letting people know. with great respect, anne

  38. I want to add a final post this morning and express my heart felt thanks to all of you who have taken your time to think and respond to the TVA work. Just one story of many that are occurring daily. I want to sincerely thank David for creating this incredible venue of the 21st century on line “Life”.

    For all of us as photographers, we work most often quietly on our own. We are driven by our passion and inter need to “tell a story”. This current time period in our country is shouting at us to use our cameras to inform and enlighten. To awaken a sleeping giant, to redirect our journeys in such a manner that the next seven generations can look back at us and say…”they were concerned for us”. We do not have to travel great distances to discover our waiting stories. They are outside our houses, around our neighborhoods, and in all of our towns and cities. They are waiting for us.

    Thank you all for being concerned photographers. I am headed back to TN in a few weeks and will be posting an update on a blog I have started: http://www.carlantapp.blogspot.com. Please keep in touch. I am a regular reader of Burn and will look forward to sharing thoughts with all of you here.

    be strong, be safe,


  39. Pingback: The 37th Frame - Celebrating the Best of Photojournalism » Clean Coal TVA Ash Spill by Carlan Tapp (Burn Magazine)

  40. Just wanted to quickly share this email I just received from the Natural Resources Defense Council regarding CARLAN TAPP:

    Rob Perks let me know that he has been in touch with Carlan on coal ash. They are planning to use his slide show, hope to post it on their website at some point and blog it.

    Thought many here would be happy to know that.

  41. Pingback: A Bit More on Carlan Tapp « Prison Photography

Comments are closed.