Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Gregory V. Button

Committee Members

Tricia Redeker Hepner, David G. Anderson, Micheline van Riemsdijk


Coal was once hailed as a means through which humans could free themselves from nature and enter a world of unending progress and growth. As a fuel for economic development, it has long been central to projects of capitalist modernity in the Appalachian South. It is also a resource that connects the central mining areas of the region to the development agendas of the Tennessee Valley. The 2008 disaster at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee represents one of numerous calamities along the life cycle of coal in the region. The deluge of coal ash sludge that flowed into rivers and communities on December 22, 2008 covered over 300 acres in Roane County. While no one was killed or injured, the “spill” damaged homes and property and resulted in a variety of social, environmental, and economic impacts. As part of the cleanup effort, millions of tons of coal ash traveled by train to a landfill in Perry County, Alabama where local officials welcomed the shipments as a means for stimulating economic growth, despite the concerns of many residents. Perry County and Roane County represent two, among many, burial sites for the mounting residues of coal spread throughout the region and in the aftermath of the disaster, Roane County was cast in the spotlight of the emerging national eco-political debate over the management and regulation of coal ash. Using ethnographic data and a historically grounded, political ecological framework, this dissertation explores the intersections between development and disaster by seeking to understand how the TVA catastrophe is an unfolding phenomenon rooted in pre-disaster social, political, and economic production patterns. This study also examines how the logic of capital and the amalgamation of corporate and state power shape material practices and social and institutional arrangements in ways that create unstable and unsustainable human-environmental relationships, which in turn produce and perpetuate hazards and vulnerability.

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