published Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Tennessee Valley Authority to dredge Emory River to remove ash

Audio clip

Jason Robertson

More than six weeks after an ash pond ruptured into the Emory River and onto nearby land, the Tennessee Valley Authority has responded to a state order and submitted a cleanup plan.

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Patrick Smith
    Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) officials test sediment samples from a slew of the Emory River near the Swan Pond Circle Road community near Harriman, Tenn. Officials are testing after a TVA coal ash spill blanketed over 300 acres just before Christmas.

But some neighbors complained Friday that the proposed cleanup is insufficient. Others worried it could stir up toxic contaminants in the riverbed deposited there years ago from the military’s uranium research and enrichment work at Oak Ridge.

“If they’re just going to clean up the channel, that’s just a very small amount of the ash. How does that help the people who live down here?” said Jason Robertson, a resident. “They need to clean up all of it. That’s my opinion and a lot of people’s opinion.”

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said utility contractors will use hydraulic dredging equipment to pump the spilled ash and muck from the channel next to the Kingston Fossil Plant and move it to a sluice for drying. Then the ash will be moved to a temporary storage site on a ball field at the plant site, he said.

“This is phase one of our cleanup to reduce the risk of flooding and to restore the use of the river channel,” he said. “Once we get that done, we will move to plans to remove the rest of the ash (in other parts of the Emory River).”

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation ordered TVA last month to come up with a cleanup plan within 20 days for what was the biggest spill of its kind from a coal power plant. On Dec. 22, more than 1.1 billion gallons of wet ash sludge spilled into the river and over about 300 acres of residential and farm land when an earthen berm holding the ash landfill broke apart.

There is no timetable for TVA’s work, nor is there a timetable for the plan’s review by state and federal environmental agencies, according to TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton. She said state officials know there is a need for urgency with the cleanup, but they want to review the plan thoroughly.

If the plan is approved, Mr. Francis said, dredging could begin in four to six weeks, but he said he did not know yet how long the dredging would take to complete.

Residents say they are looking for more than just restoring navigation to the channel.

Terry Gupton, a cattle farmer, said the plan is about what he was expecting.

“They didn’t discuss at all about the ash that’s in the (river) coves,” he said. “I think they’re obligated to get the river open first thing and clean up the rest of it later. That doesn’t make us happy, but that’s the way it is.”

Mr. Gupton said he and his wife likely will have to leave their 150-acre farm because they can’t let their purebred beef and breeding cattle graze on contaminated fields and drink from contaminated springs.

The phase one cleanup plan does not include any removal of the ash piled up in the sloughs and bays of the Emory River along Swan Pond Road and Swan Pond Circle Road, according to TVA’s cleanup plans submitted to TDEC.

“Future work not addressed in this plan includes phase two dredging that will focus on returning the river channel back to its original depths while minimizing disturbances of legacy sediment. Additionally Phase 2 will include removing Weir 1 (a temporary rock dam holding the bulk of the spilled ash from the Clinch River) completely,” the plan states.

“Proposed future work not addressed in this plan includes Phase 3 dredging that will focus on removal of ash deposits that are outside of the Emory River channel,” according to the plan.

TVA is proposing to put what it dredges from the main Emory River channel into the sluice channel that flows into the existing ash pond. In that pond, suspended material will be allowed to settle and then the water will be released back to the river, Mr. Francis said.

The process is the same as how all ash water is handled at the TVA plant, he said.

That part of the plan also has critics, and some are worried that riverbed dredging may stir up “legacy” heavy metals and contaminants from the uranium research and enrichment done by the military in nearby Oak Ridge, which flows into the Clinch River.

“If they are going to dredge anywhere near the Clinch River, there is a danger of stirring up radioactive sediments and heavy metals,” said Chris Irwin, an attorney for United Mountain Defense, a grass-roots group fighting TVA’s use of coal. “This needs to be cleaned up, but it needs to be done very cautiously.”

Sarah McCoin, founder of the recently formed Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network, agreed and said she wants the plan reviewed by environmental experts working with grass-roots groups, as well.

“We as citizens have taken for granted for years that they (TVA and government regulators) have known what they were doing. I don’t want to do that anymore,” she said. “There are just so many unanswered questions.”

TVA’s plan states that during the dredging, the agency will continue monitoring water quality, turbidity and aquatic life in the Emory and nearby Clinch rivers. TVA also is continuing its monitoring of air, water and soil around the Kingston plant, Mr. Francis said.

The agency recently sent a letter to about 100 homeowners in the area, warning them of the heightened risk of flooding because of the ash-filled river and agreeing to pay for flood-related damages caused by the ash spill.

TVA President Tom Kilgore said this week that the Kingston ash cleanup “is of the highest priority to TVA.”

To oversee what he said likely will cost the utility hundreds of millions of dollars, Mr. Kilgore appointed Anda Ray, TVA’s top environmental officer, to guide overall planning and environmental recovery operations and Bob Deacy, a senior vice president in TVA’s coal-fired power plants division, to direct construction and cleanup at both the Kingston plant and a gypsum pond spill at the Widows Creek plant in northeast Alabama.

about Pam Sohn...

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, ...

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