published Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Farmers worried TVA doesn’t understand their concerns

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Patrick Smith
    Terry Gupton explains the flooding on his farm property near Harriman, Tenn., on Tuesday. A coal ash spill blanketed more than 300 acres surrounding the TVA power plant.

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Sandy Gupton said she heard a noise on the night of the landfill breach near the Kingston Fossil Plant and felt the house vibrate slightly.

“It felt like an earthquake,” she recalled last week of what she later realized was the beginning of a TVA coal ash and sludge slide that buried about 300 acres of prime waterfront property and farmland in Harriman, Tenn., near Kingston.

In the melee of environmental and safety concerns that followed the breach of the TVA earthen dam and landfill on the Emory and Clinch rivers four miles upstream of the Tennessee River, Mrs. Gupton and her husband, Terry, still feel as though their world is moving. They worry that TVA isn’t taking the plight of the region’s farmers seriously enough.

“My husband has lost his livelihood,” Mrs. Gupton said last week, pointing to the farm’s pasture and hay-growing land where scumy and ash-covered water continues to back up because the Emory River is blocked.

“We have a registered herd of Gelbvieh cattle — beef cattle. We breed them. I don’t want them at risk,” she said.

Some of the metals and compounds in fly ash have been linked with adverse health effects, including genetic damage, said Mrs. Gupton, a nurse.

The couple worries their cattle’s blood lines will be affected and that their ability to sell their beef for consumption could be compromised.

“I wouldn’t want to put crops on that land now, either,” said Mr. Gupton, who retired recently from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil conservation service. He has grown hay and corn on the 250-acre farm and on other leased farmland nearby.

At a public meeting last Sunday, Mrs. Gupton told TVA CEO and President Tom Kilgore she was worried about the livestock.

Mr. Kilgore said the agency would help fence off sludged acreage.

But several days later, Mrs. Gupton resorted to collecting her own water samples in a pasture near the river after waiting several days for TVA to make the effort.

She said agency technicians did take a sample from cleaner water near their driveway after rebuilding the roadway into their property. But she said they didn’t seem to take seriously her request to sample some ashy scum ponds in pastures near the river.

The Gupton’s concern also goes beyond the immediate testing and pasture refencing. The spring they’ve used as a water source for their herd is now underwater, covered by the ash slurry.

Mr. Gupton is installing a pump to provide city water for his animals.

The endeavor — and the monthly bill — will not be cheap, he said.

And if the ash sludge and slurry dries out before TVA’s planned temporary seeding cover takes hold, the residue will blow from acreage already contaminated to acreage now thought to be safe, Mr. Gupton said. If the wind-blown ash settles on other fields, that, too, will create grazing and crop-growing hazards.

“The CEO (Mr. Kilgore) talks like they’ll have a magic cleanup,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know ...”

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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