On Dec. 22, 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authoritys Kingston coal plant ash pond dam had a catastrophic and sudden failure, releasing 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash across 300 acres and into the Emory River.

WNCAs Watauga Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby went to the site five days after the spill to do an investigation and collect water samples.

A Duke University study revealed that toxic elements in the coal ash could be suspended in the air, posing a serious health risk. The study also said that the coal ash contaminated waters and that accumulation of toxins in river sediment could poison fish. Residents have reported numerous health problems — headaches, respiratory problems and seizures, among others — and scientists have found high levels of toxins in the tissues of fish in the Tennessee, Clinch and Emory rivers.

The long-term effects of coal ash on humans and wildlife remain largely unknown, and experts say the impact of the Tennessee coal ash spill may take decades to sort out.