published Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Metal levels at ash spill exceed TVA's measure

By Shaila Dewan

New York Times News Service

An environmental advocacy group’s tests of river water and ash near the site of a massive coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee showed levels of arsenic, lead, chromium and other metals at two to 300 times higher than drinking water standards, the group said Thursday.

The findings far exceed levels reported by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Those agencies have reported elevated levels of thallium, lead and arsenic found near the spill but have not released the full results of those tests.

The TVA and the state have released only the results of tests on water sampled just after the spill at a spot six miles away and upstream of the ash flow in the Emory River, which showed that the water at that spot met drinking standards.

The ash spill, which appears to be the largest in the country’s history, occurred Dec. 22 when an earthen dike at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a TVA coal utility, gave way, spreading a billion gallons of wet coal ash, known to contain heavy metals, across about 300 acres of land and into tributaries to the Tennessee River.

The independent test results were released by Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy group based in Boone, N.C. The tests were conducted using standard EPA methods, said Shea Tuberty, an environmental toxicologist at Appalachian State University who helped analyze the results.

Paul E. Davis, the director of water pollution control for the Tennessee environmental department, said he would have his staff compare the results of the tests with other sample results. “If the work that Appalachian State has done indicates that there’s been a violation, we’re very interested,” Davis said.

Appalachian Voices sampled water taken from three locations — near the site, about half a mile downstream, and about two miles downstream — and found eight metals that exceeded drinking water limits. At the two-mile point, arsenic was at a level 35 times the drinking water limit. The group also expressed concern that standards for fish and aquatic life, which are stricter than drinking water standards, in part because heavy metals accumulate in animal tissue over time, had been exceeded.

“These are some of the most astonishing water-quality sampling results I’ve ever seen in my 10 years of working on rivers,” said Donna Lisenby, known as the Watauga Riverkeeper, who works for Appalachian Voices and helped collect the samples.

A news release from the group included a statement by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman of the national Waterkeeper Alliance, who said, “Although these results are preliminary, we want to release them because of the public health concern and because we believe the TVA and EPA aren’t being candid.”

Jim Allen, a spokesman for the power authority, said, “TVA has every confidence in the integrity of its sampling methodologies as well as those of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency. TVA also is obtaining independent sampling.”

Allen said he could not say why the agency had not released the full results of the samples that had been tested thus far.

Laura Niles, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said she was waiting for results to release to the public. “I’m getting that question daily, believe me,” she said.

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