published Friday, October 16th, 2009

Neighbors balk at selling land next to ash ponds

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Tim Barber Jere McCraw and his family have lived on a 300-acre farm near Bridgeport, Ala., since the early 1800s. The Tennessee Valley Authority wants his land in an effort to protect the utility from suits that may come as a result of coal ash storage near Mr. McCraw's property.

BRIDGEPORT, Ala. — As Jere McCraw tends the family cemetery where six generations of his ancestors are buried, he looks warily at the ash storage ponds built only a few hundred yards away, next to TVA’s Widows Creek Fossil Plant.

Mr. McCraw and his older brother, JoJohn, worry that a pond and a well at their family farm may be polluted from the nearby coal plant’s ponds, whose ash contains elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals. But they insist they don’t want to give up the 300-acre property their family has owned and farmed since 1830.

The historic site, where Civil War enthusiasts gather every March to re-enact the Battle of Bridgeport, is now the site of a 21st century battle between the McCraws and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“We definitely don’t want to sell, but it's scary for us,” said Jere McCraw, a 53-year-old middle school teacher and coach who lives just below one of the Widows Creek ash ponds. “We fought the federal government on this land in the Civil War. I hope it doesn’t come to that again.”

To limit what TVA recently calculated as a “high hazard” ash pond at the Widows Creek plant, the federal utility is buying up the land adjacent to the ash ponds where contaminated water accidentally leaked into Widows Creek in January.

The Widows Creek accident — caused when a cap came loose on a 36-inch standpipe — came less than a month after an ash pond ruptured at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. More than 1 billion gallons of ash spilled into the Emory River and nearby properties in one of the nation’s biggest industrial accidents.

Under regulatory and public pressure, TVA officials have vowed that an accident like the Kingston spill will never happen again. TVA has pledged to spend more than $3 billion to clean up the Kingston spill and also to convert the wet ash storage ponds it uses at a half dozen coal plants, including the Widows Creek facility, to dry storage — a safer method — within the next decade.

buying a buffer

In the meantime, TVA already has acquired five properties and three homes near Widows Creek and spent another $2 million to upgrade the storage pond where the January spill occurred.

“As we go forward, we want to be state of the art in how we dispose of our coal combustion products,” TVA President Tom Kilgore said recently. “At Widows Creek, there are people living there within sight of the top of that impound (where coal ash and gypsum — byproducts of burning coal — are put into ponds). We’ve bought their property and moved them to other places and we hope that will alleviate the potential risk there.”

Bob Deacy, TVA’s senior vice president for clean strategies and project development, said that by acquiring the land near the ash ponds and by inspecting and reshaping the slope of the earthen dam around the ponds, the risk rating at Widows Creek may be downgraded.

“These improvements should help ensure that these impoundments have good stability, but eventually it is our intent to get out of this type of wet storage of ash altogether,” he said. “The purpose of buying these homes is to potentially reduce the high risk classification at Widows Creek as well as to give us more land we could eventually use in other ways for the disposal of ash.”

In the wake of the Kingston spill, TVA this year reclassified four of its coal plants as high risk because inspectors determined that another such spill from an ash pond could threaten nearby residents or motorists. Mr. Deacy said the risk doesn’t reflect the chance of a spill, just the potential threat to those living near the plant.

giving up the farm

Darren McCloud, a quality director for the Beaulieu of America plant in Bridgeport, sold 66 acres just north of the Widows Creek ash ponds this summer to TVA.

“We built our home, raised our children and lived there 16 years, so at first we did not want to sell,” Mr. McCloud said. “But when we saw what had happened in Kingston and began talking with TVA officials and their appraisers, we finally agreed to sell in July. It’s certainly been an emotional roller coaster.”

Mr. McCloud, 44, is starting over, building a new home six miles away on a 42-acre site at Dorans Cove, near Russell Cave National Monument. His mother, who also sold her 16-acre home next to Widows Creek, has temporarily moved into another one of her son’s houses in Bridgeport.

Mr. McCloud, who said he believes he ended up getting a fair price for his property, said he never noticed any problems with the water in two fishing ponds he had at his former home near Widows Creek.

But the McCraws are less sure about what the coal plant may be doing to their water quality.

“We’re most concerned about what’s going on underneath the ground with the water,” said JoJohn McCraw, a 56-year-old South Pittsburg accountant who keeps a cabin on the family farm. "All the land around here is built on limestone and we're worried that the ash ponds are leaking into the cracks and crevices in the rock and seeping into our groundwater.”

A pond that was dug on the McCraw’s farm back in the 1940s has filled more regularly since TVA began building up the ash ponds across the road from the McCraw’s property. Jere McCraw believes the thin, white coat on the surface of the pond may contain ash sentiments.

regulating coal ash

Although coal ash contains potentially hazardous amounts of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, it is not regulated as a hazardous material. Following the Kingston ash spill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pledged to issue rules for coal ash disposal before the end of 2009.

“I don’t know if it is dangerous or not, but we’ve asked and asked both TVA or ADEM (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management) to check to see if there is a problem,” Jere McCraw said.

PDF: Ash health study

PDF: Swan Pond ash report

Article: Health report on ash spill disputed

Article: 1 year later: Digging out of the ashes

PDF: Kingston timeline

Article: Coal ash disaster prompts TVA to restructure

Article: Ash spill area residents still angry one year later

PDF: TVA notice of winning performance payments

PDF: Richard Moore testimony

PDF: Tom Kilgore testimony

PDF: Lessons Learned

PDF: TVA Stakeholder Letter

Article: TVA sending ash to 2 sites

PDF: Ash load test letters

PDF: Kingston ash facts

Article: Study links cancer rate, coal ash landfills

Article: Ash cleanup price tag nears $1 billion

PDF: TVA quarterly report

PDF: TVA coal plant emissions

PDF: Tom Kilgore

Article: 100 days later, ash spill questions linger for Tennessee Valley Authority

Article: Kingston ash spill site roads reopening

Article: Chattanooga : Tests show no sign of ash spill

PDF: TVA Corrective Action Plan

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority may end ash ponds in Kingston

Article: Tennessee: Brockovich firm files ash spill lawsuit

Article: Tennessee: Coal ash regulation bill pushed in wake of TVA spill

PDF: TVA ash cleanup plan

Article: Tennessee: Costs mount for Kingston ash cleanup

Article:Tennessee: Kingston ash spill prompts 2nd congressional hearing

PDF: TVA ash cleanup plan

PDF: Ash removal facts

Article:Tennessee Valley Authority to dredge Emory River to remove ash

PDF: TVA executive changes

Article:Tennessee Valley Authority shakes up executive staff

Article: Tennessee: Grassroots ash effort grows Internet roots

Article: Tennessee: Study suggests coal ash spill health risk

PDF: Duke University study

Article: Tennessee: Lawmakers push federal aid for TVA spill cleanup

PDF: TVA Ocoee Plans

Coal ash: What states and plants are putting into pond

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority plan changes Ocoee controls

Article: Tennessee: Decisions on ash spill cleanup still up in air

Article:Video: Residents react one month after spill

Article:Tennessee: Tests show no fly ash toxins in river water

Article: Tennessee: Groups protest TVA ash spills

Article: Tennessee: Polk votes to post warnings on Ocoee

PDF: Polk County Commission resolution

Article:Tennessee: More scrubbers ordered for Widows Creek plant

PDF: federal court order

Video: TVA spill prompts local water testing

PDF: Bredesen Announces Order Formalizing Cleanup and Compliance Proceeds

PDF: TVA Ocoee Dam

PDF: Order issued

Article: Tennessee: Widows Creek ash may be more toxic than Kingston’s

Article: Tennessee: Costly spill cleanup spurs debate over who pays

Article: Tennessee: Groups urge more regulations on coal ash

Article: Tennessee: Early warnings on ash pond leaks

Article: Tennessee: Environmental groups prepare to sue TVA

Article: Tennessee: Early warnings on ash pond leaks

Article:Tennessee: Brockovich aids ash victims

Article:Tennessee: Senate panel blasts TVA over Kingston ash spill

PDF: Kingston Senate Hearing Testmony

Article: Tennessee: Groups urge more regulations on coal ash

PDF: NASA satellite photo

Article: Kingston: TVA watchdog to review Kingston ash spill

Article:Lawsuit planned against TVA over Kingston coal ash spill

Article:Corker says ash spill should be 'wake-up call' for state and federal agencies

Article:Kingston: TVA watchdog to review Kingston ash spill

Article:Lawsuit planned against TVA over Kingston coal ash spill

Article: Kingston cleanup (video)

PDF: 2008 dike inspection report

Article: Early warnings on ash pond leaks

Article: Farmers worried TVA doesn’t understand their concerns

Article: Tennessee: Community awaits answers

Article: Tennessee: Spill cleanup shifts focus away from emissions

Article:Tennessee Valley Authority spill could endanger sturgeon

Article: Tennessee Valley Authority to spread grass seed at Kingston coal ash spill site

PDF: EPA Testing Results

Article: Metal levels at ash spill exceed TVA's measure

Editorial Cartoon: Clean Coal

PDF: TVA incident action plan 01/01/09

PDF: Preliminary TVA Ash Spill Sample Data

Video: Ash spill clean up

Video: Ash spill demolition

Video: Ash spill aftermath

Article: Tennessee-American tests water following Kingston plant spill

Article: Tennessee: Governor says state will toughen oversight on TVA facilities

PDF: Chattanooga_Water_Quality

PDF:Ash spill

Article:Tennessee: Corps to dredge river to clear coal ash spill

Article:Tennessee: Questions persists on spill

PDF: Berke TVA Spill

PDF: Wamp Statement on Kingston

PDF: EPA Statement on Ash Release

Article:Tennessee Valley Authority vows to clean up spill,

Article:Tennessee Valley Authority boosts estimate from coal ash spill

Article: First tests show water safe after ash deluge

Article: Cleanup begins in wake of ash pond flood

Article: Tennessee: Cleanup begins in wake of ash pond flood

Article: TVA dike bursts in Tennessee, flooding 8-10 homes

On Tuesday, ADEM finalized a $25,000 penalty against TVA for violating state water quality rules in January when the storage pond water leaked into Widows Creek, ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes said.

While neighbors on both sides of his farm have or soon will relocate, Mr. McCraw vows to fight any takeover attempt from TVA.

“We talked with them about six weeks ago and told them we weren’t interested at all in selling,” he said. “We haven’t heard back from them since.”

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the agency is continuing to negotiate with neighbors to buy property and is studying ways to ultimately replace the ash ponds with dry ash storage.

“TVA is looking at all of its options for changing the (risk) classifications for some of those impoundments,” she said. “One of those options is purchasing property; another is using different engineering designs to change some of the size and scope of the impoundments.”

Mr. Deacy said he hopes to have the ash ponds at the four high-risk TVA coal plants converted to dry storage methods by 2014.

High-hazard TVA plants

* WIdows Creek, near Stevenson, Ala.

* Colbert in Northwest Alabama

* Cumberland, northwest of Nashville

* Bull Run, near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

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Just which straw is it that breaks the camel’s back? That age-old question applies in so many ways. From the burden of over taxation, overregulation, federal domination and the power of eminent domain – where is the line in the sand drawn?

Some say it is the TVA culture, others point to incompetences of the TVA board and management. For whatever the reasons, TVA has proved it cannot be trusted and it carries a full load of ammunition to overwhelm any opponent. The awesome power of imminent domain is irrefutable.

Executive Order 13406 more clearly defines how publically acquired properties are to be handled. First there has to be a public need and I do not believe that need goes so far as to acquire property to thwart future litigation as has been implied by TVA.

TVA caused the Widows Creek ash-dam problem and TVA should cure the problem, not push it further down the road for some future bureaucrats to deal with. In a typical manner, TVA wants to buy off the opposition including a farm that has managed to stay in the family since 1810. That Goliath has all the money it wants to spend but the Davids can outsmart him with a concerted effort by standing against the TVA.

Who knows when or if that great ash wall will come crashing down? Obviously, TVA does not know.

TVA caused it (the “root cause”) and TVA must eliminate the problem.

“Mr. Kilgore, tear down that wall!”

October 16, 2009 at 7:18 p.m.

Eminent Domain def.

"To seize a citizen's rights in property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner's consent." Wikipedia

I should have written "The imminent and awesome power of eminent domain..."

For more of my writings on the TVA, see http://norsworthyopinion.com and my latest, http://norsworthyopinion.com/TVAfuturecloudy.aspx

Ernest Norsworthy emnorsworthy@earthlink.net

October 16, 2009 at 7:37 p.m.
wordisborn said...

Tis easy to say 'we fought the federal government on this land' but what he doesn't say is if they wanted it then they could have have taken it because we lost. True back then and true today as well. I still sympathize with the cause eventhough it is already lost. Word...

October 16, 2009 at 8:08 p.m.
Vandy said...

Well said Ernest but I think you give more to EO13406 which states "for the purpose of benefiting the general public and not merely for the purpose of advancing the economic interest of private parties to be given ownership" since TVA isn't a private party.

October 16, 2009 at 8:09 p.m.

Vandy; yes, the EO more specifically applies to the Heath Shuler land swap deal which, as you know, is still covered up in a House Ethics Committee with the help of the TVA OIG.

October 17, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.
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