HARRIMAN, Tenn. — A coal ash spill that blanketed more than 300 acres of the Emory River and surrounding properties is more than three times bigger than originally estimated, officials of the Tennessee Valley Authority said Friday.
Tami Neal, pastors wife of the Swan Pond Baptist Church, talks about a Christmas Eve service held near where an ash pond levy broke and spilled more than 500 million gallons onto homes near Harriman. She and other residents along Swan Pond Rd temporarilly lost water and natural gas connections from the disaster.
Ronald Hall, manager of the Kingston Fossil Plant, said detailed aerial reviews of Monday’s breach of an earthen retaining wall around the plant’s ash pond showed that 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled into the adjacent river and low-lying properties. Mr. Hall said preliminary estimates of 1.7 million cubic yards fly ash from the incident were updated this week as cleanup crews worked around the clock to clear away one of the worst spills ever from a TVA power plant.
“Our earlier estimate was made as we initially responded to the emergency,” he said. “We’re trying to be as open and transparent as possible as we continue to assess the situation.”
Environmental leaders and TVA officials on Friday continued to dispute the potential danger from the coal ash. Despite concerns about cancer-causing metals like arsenic, lead and selenium in fly ash, TVA officials said the ash residue is not toxic after it is burned in one of the nine boilers that generate electricity at the Kingston plant.
Anda Ray, the chief environmental officer for TVA, refused to call the spill an environmental disaster, insisting that the fly ash dumped into the Emory River “is inert” and it’s biggest danger is if it becomes airborne for those with respiratory problems “like from a dust storm.”
“I would characterize this as a challenging event to restore the community back to normalcy,” Ms. Ray told reporters Friday. “We have coal ash in the river bottom that we want to dredge out, but it is not toxic. The biggest concern is when the fly ash dries and might become airborne, but we have a number of ways we are looking at to deal with that potential.”
Ms. Ray said the scores of dead fish observed around the river this week were likely killed when they were stranded after part the Emory River, including an entire slew, was filled with up to 6 feet of ash slurry. Ms. Ray said the fish kill was not due to any degradation of the water quality.
“The fish simply got kicked out of the river,” she said.
But some environmental leaders urged TVA to do more to warn residents about the potential danger from fly ash.
“TVA needs to be doing a lot more to warn people about this spill, which could have some potentially toxic substances,” said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Chandra Taylor, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the holiday disaster points up “there are a lot of protections missing in the whole life-cycle costs of coal.”
“Today, hearing that the amount of coal wash is much more than what TVA was reporting is shocking,” she said.
Ms. Taylor, who specializes in coal and clean air issues, said the law center often has recommended the slurry or sludge ponds be phased out entirely.
In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter controls on disposing coal ash, but The New York Times said the EPA backed away under strong opposition from the coal industry and estimates from the Edison Electric Institute that declared the controls could cost the industry an extra $5 billion in cleanup costs.
Elliott Negin, media director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Kingston plant accident underscores the problem with getting most of America’s electricity from coal.
“Those that claim there is clean coal are like who say there are safe cigarettes,” he said.
Tisha Calabrese-Benton, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said Friday night that state and federal regulators continue to test the water in the area for potential problems.
“Those water sampling results, which have been reviewed by the department and EPA, indicate some levels above the maximum contaminant level for drinking water in the immediate area of the spill, but not in the area of any drinking water intake,” she said. “All samples received to date indicate that the water entering the Kingston Water Treatment Plant meets public health standards.”
On Friday, Roane County Emergency Management officials removed limits on water usage in the area so that residents no longer were encouraged to boil their water. That was good news for Gary Gunter, a retired 60-year-old Army veteran, and his neighbors, Gary and Tami Neal. They were among several dozen residents who spent Tuesday in local hotels after water service was disrupted by the wave of coal ash that covered Swan Pond Road and the part of the Norfolk Southern rail spur.
“We didn’t know if we would even be home for Christmas, but fortunately we were and life is getting back to normal,” Mrs. Neal said.
Roane County Executive Mike Farmer said among a dozen homes damaged from the spill, it looks like only three will have to be totally demolished. The homes, along with 3,000 feet of Swan Pond Road and 1,500 fee of Swan Pond Circle, were covered with several feet of coal ash residue following the break in the earthen dam early Monday.
“We obviously had a great concern that this happened but has far as TVA’s response they have worked with us very well,” Mr. Farmer said. “They have worked to get housing and other needs for those affected.”
On Friday, Mr. Hall said nearly 60 bulldozers, dump trucks, cranes and other heavy equipment were being used to remove tons of ash residue and to build a new weir dam to help filter sludge from the river downstream. The Emory River drains into the Clinch River near Interstate 40 and the Clinch River connects in Anderson County with the Tennessee River, which supplies the drinking water for millions of residents in the Tennessee Valley, including most of Chattanooga.
Kim Dalton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee-American Water Co. in Chattanooga, said water supplies here are safe, despite the pollution concerns for the Tennessee River upstream.
“We are monitoring closely with TDEC and TVA,” she said. “As of now there are no issues.”
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...