Staff Photo by Dan Henry Tennessee State Governor Phil Bredesen speaks during a press conference at the Roane County Rescue Squad complex Wednesday December 31, 2008, about his tour of the coal-fired Kingston power plant's breached earthen dike which released over 1 billion gallons of fly ash and coal-burning residues into the Emory River on December 22, 2008.
HARRIMAN, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen put TVA on notice Wednesday that in the wake of its massive fly ash spill here state officials no longer will allow the agency to inspect itself.
“We will be looking over their shoulders,” the governor said. “I have asked the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to immediately do inspections” at all seven of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal plants and fly ash waste systems.
The governor’s pledge of greater state oversight came after he flew over the 400 acres where an earthen dam holding the wet ash landfill of TVA’s Kingston plant collapsed on Dec. 22. The collapse dumped 5.4 million cubic yards — more than 1 billion gallons — of sludge onto this residential and farm community between Knoxville and Dayton.
Calling what he had seen at Harriman “a massive and obvious disaster,” Gov. Bredesen said he also has asked regulatory officials with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to stay on the scene in Harriman and neighboring Kingston to ensure safe cleanup and monitoring there.
“TVA is a federal agency, and there may have been an exaggerated deference to them,” he said of the state’s past and present oversight. “We are not doing today everything we possibly could.”
TVA spokesman Jim Allen said safety “is paramount” for the agency, and it will continue to meet state and federal regulations.
“The state has an important role to play, and in this recovery phase we’re working closely with TDEC and, at the federal level, EPA,” Mr. Allen said.
Gov. Bredesen also said he expects more state involvement — and likely new policies — beyond the immediate inspections and continued sampling of drinking water intakes in the region.
“2009 is a different time. ... There may well be a different mandate from our department,” he said.
Immediately after his flyover, the governor met with TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore inside the Kingston plant.
Mr. Kilgore took Gov. Bredesen, flanked by Tennessee Commissioner of Health Susan Cooper and Rep. Dennis Ferguson, D-Midtown, on a brief walk across the plant’s back lot to view a tiny portion of ashy mud remaining at what TVA officials said was a recently cleaned-up corner between the power plant and the spill area.
Looming to one side, the still-intact, 55-foot back wall of the waste pond and landfill blocked the view of the massive destruction on the other side, but the governor was able to get a look at a very small sample of fly ash.
“We sell 50 percent of it,” Mr. Kilgore told the governor as the two rolled a ball of gray mud-like ash.
The governor told Mr. Kilgore the disaster “is much more obvious from the air.”
Later, the governor told reporters, Commissioner Cooper, a nurse, made him wash his hands in keeping with the health directive state authorities have issued to residents.
Ms. Cooper also instructed reporters who had been in the mud to wash their shoes.
On Monday, federal officials cautioned area residents who use private wells or springs to stop drinking the water because some tests had found elevated levels of arsenic, which can be toxic. Authorities have said the municipal water supplies in Kingston and Rockwood are safe to drink.
The Kingston plant sits beside the confluence of the Emory and Clinch rivers, a short distance from where the Clinch flows into the Tennessee River.
The sludge slide caused no injuries but blocked a portion of the Emory River, covered a road and a railroad, destroyed three houses, displaced a dozen families and damaged the land of 42 property owners, officials said.
Neither TVA nor state officials have been able to estimate how long a cleanup will take or what it might cost.
Across the region, some officials are looking at whether ash landfills in other areas are safe. The Associated Press reports that retention ponds at nine locations in Alabama all have passed inspection since the Kingston spill.
The disaster also is drawing national interest — especially in Washington.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has scheduled a congressional hearing Jan. 8 to hear testimony from Mr. Kilgore, as well as Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Howie Rose, director of Roane County’s emergency management services.
Additionally, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., issued this statement Wednesday:
“TVA should clean up this mess and clean it up quickly, and do everything possible to make sure it never happens again,” Sen. Alexander said.
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, ...