A billion-gallon coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston power plant drew its first lawsuit Tuesday along with the promise of another and a call for a congressional hearing.
Staff Photo by Tim Barber Kingston Fossil Plant manager Ronald Hall, left, TVA Environmental Executive Anda Ray and Roane County Executive Mike Farmer talk about cleanup efforts around the Kingston Fossil Plant on Friday.
Owners and developers of an ash-flooded subdivision near the Kingston Fossil Plant sued the Tennessee Valley Authority for $165 million after the property was damaged by a dike burst that resulted in a deluge of coal ash sludge.
The six-page lawsuit was filed in state court by Jot and Brenda Raymond, owners and developers of North Lake Estates in Roane County. They claim they can’t show prospective buyers their property, which they describe as suffering “significant and immediate damage” to its value since the Dec. 22 spill from the power plant.
Separately, the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit group critical of coal-fired power plants, served notice that it intends to sue the federal utility under federal environmental laws.
The group’s executive director, Dr. Stephen A. Smith, said the spill was a man-made disaster that could have been prevented. He blasted TVA for not releasing studies on the content of the coal ash spilled into the Emory River on Dec. 22.
“This is a tragic situation that has brought devastating environmental damage and carries with it potential for serious human health impacts,” Dr. Smith said. “We have been frustrated by TVA’s public statements minimizing the seriousness of this massive release and withholding information.”
Dr. Smith also said, “There certainly needs to be” congressional hearings on the incident.
He charged TVA “is not accountable to anybody except Congress, and unfortunately there has been a deafening silence over the past eight years” in terms of congressional hearings and oversight.
TVA spokesman John Moulton said TVA will review the lawsuits and respond in court.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said in a statement that Roane County residents “are rightfully frustrated and anxious” and TVA “should be very aggressive and thorough to ensure that the people in the area are protected and that the drinking water is safe.”
“TVA should set the standard for environmental protection,” he said. “And Congress must hold TVA to a high level of accountability in this regard.”
But in an interview, the Chattanoogan voiced reservations about Dr. Smith’s call for congressional hearings. He warned the forum could set the stage for attacks on TVA by the New Deal-era agency’s congressional enemies as well as a general assault from environmentalists opposed to use of coal.
“There may be a need for a hearing ... but I don’t want the hearings to turn into a circus where certain TVA bashers turn this into an opportunity to bash TVA and to bash coal,” Rep. Wamp said.
Gov. Phil Bredesen, who largely has been silent on the disaster except for a short statement issued by his office Monday, is expected to tour the site today.
In the statement, Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said the governor has been briefed on the situation.
“He fully expects TVA to fulfill its pledge to take all appropriate actions to assist those affected and to clean up and restore the damaged property,” she said in the statement.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., toured the site himself Tuesday, said spokesman Tom Hayden. He said Rep. Davis “called on the TVA to take care of everyone affected in any way, be sure to prevent any toxins from getting into the water systems, and to present a plan to the public with solutions so this does not occur again.”
Mr. Smith said he repeatedly has asked TVA to release studies on the content of the fly ash and coal slurry in the dredge pond that broke apart and spewed its contents over more than 300 acres of river and property north of the Kingston plant.
TVA has released water samples showing elevated metal levels on the first day after the spill just below the ash pond. Water samples taken at the nearby Kingston water intake were within state drinking standards, according to TVA and EPA.
But Mr. Smith said TVA has other data on the content of the coal ash itself and has yet to release such samples.
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, in a statement voiced concern about “potentially conflicting reports” regarding levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in water, calling it “absolutely essential that (the state), the TVA and the EPA provide full and timely access to all test results — even those performed prior to the spill.”
In a subsequent interview, Sen. Berke said the “first goal has got to be to take care of and remediate the problem that’s at hand. But once we get done with that, we have to figure out the next stage, which is how this happened, and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Environmental attorney Gary Davis, who filed the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s notice of intent to sue, said at least 60 day’s notice is required before the alliance may file a lawsuit against TVA under the Clean Water Act.
“With this action we are signaling our intent to use all legal means to assure that TVA is required to fully clean this mess up and take responsible actions to ensure that it never happens again,” Mr. Smith said.
Outside TVA’s building on Market Street in Chattanooga, city resident Sheila Brock stood sandwiched between two florescent yellow posterboards, bearing witness to what she said are the dangers of fly ash.
She said she was moved to action when she heard a mayor on television Tuesday morning declare the area safe.
“Whoever this mayor is, I want him to drink the water,” she said. “I want him to go play in the dirt and sludge and go drink the water.”
Staff writer Elizabeth Ryan contributed to this story.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...