In the final few days of 2008, our state made history.
And it wasn't good history.
A massive coal sludge spill dumped more than a billion gallons of waste into an east Tennessee development and damaged several homes about a half-hour drive west of Knoxville.
The Tennessee Valley Authority's initial estimate for the spill was 1.8 million cubic yards or more than 360 million gallons of sludge. Later, the estimate reached 5.4 million cubic yards or more than 1 billion gallons -- enough to fill 1,660 Olympic-size swimming pools.
And that's not all: the ash contains concentrated levels of mercury and arsenic.
"There's a lot of ash there," a beleaguered TVA spokesman told reporters. "We are taking this very seriously. It is a big clean-up project, and we're focused on it 24 hours a day."
Of course, there's not a whole lot more anybody from TVA can say.
At least 300 acres of land has been coated by the sludge. That's an area larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which was one of the first truly massive environmental disasters. And that took years to clean up, although it will never be the same.
TVA originally estimated that the sludge clean-up would take 4 to 6 weeks. But considering the Valdez precedent, it might be more in the neighborhood of 4 to 6 years.
Now, the city of Kingston is about three hours away. But there are a lot of implications for Marshall County.
The first lesson is that TVA needs to be held accountable in every way. A federal corporation and the nation's largest public power company, TVA is now responsible for one of the largest environmental disasters in our nation's history. And questions need to be answered.
At the top of the list: Why did this happen, and how can it prevented?
And perhaps of more importance to our county: Will TVA brazenly pass the cost of the clean-up on to its customers during one of the worst economic period in recent times? Unfortunately, it seems all too likely. Hopefully, some higher-ups at TVA will pay with their jobs.
At the same time those questions are asked, we should all take a look at our dependence on coal. Sixty percent of our energy comes from coal, but disasters like these -- piled on top of the air pollution, global-warming emissions and mining-related damage -- should hasten our drive to produce cleaner forms of energy.
Lastly, Marshall Countians should help make more of an effort to enjoy the outdoors. From Henry Horton State Park to the gently rolling landscape, this is a beautiful county in a beautiful state.
Hopefully, it will stay that way.
That would truly be historic.