published Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

2 years later, effects from Kingston ash spill being felt

HARRIMAN, Tenn. -- Two years ago today, Harriman cattle farmer Terry Gupton and his wife, Sandy, woke up to a nightmare that in months to come would only intensify around them and their neighbors.

Just after midnight on a freezing cold night, the dike wall of a slushy coal ash landfill ruptured and unleashed a tsunami of gray muck into the Emory River and the Swan Pond community.

As ash clogged the cove, polluted water rose over much of the Guptons' crop and grazing land. Gupton, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture agent, was afraid to graze or water his cattle or raise vegetables in the spill's aftermath.

A half-mile away, Crystell Flinn's house -- across the river cove from the ruptured ash pond -- was shoved off its foundation and pushed across Swan Pond Road into an embankment. Her husband, home alone at the time, was saved from a falling ceiling by the four posts on his bed.

On that Dec. 22, 2008, night, 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic-laden ash waste from TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant spread over 300 acres and the Emory River. In some ways, the total impact of the spill still isn't clear -- either locally or nationally.

  • photo
    W. Troy Beets, the mayor of Kingston, Tenn., speaks about how his city plans on using the $5 million from TVA to expand the wastewater treatment plant, doubling its capacity.
    Staff Photo by Dan Henry

"One of the worse things about the situation was that you're so psychologically affected," said Gupton, who with his wife finally moved away last June from their home of decades.

"We're just glad to be somewhere else. We bought another farm in Crossville, and we're rebuilding," he said. "We felt from the first that our health was affected, and that's still a question for the future. For now we're proud to be rebuilding and getting on with our life."

Sarah McCoin, a benefits analyst and still a Swan Pond resident on property that's been in her family for nine or 10 generations, echoed Gupton's health and psychological concerns.

"It's a really a dreadful situation that you try to make the best of," she said. "The ash is not gone. It's just sculpted."

What has changed

Steve McCracken, Tennessee Valley Authority's general manager for the Kingston ash recovery project who has been marshaling the cleanup in Harriman for about a year, said he's surprised and pleased that work has moved so quickly.

But there's still about three years of work to go, he is quick to add.

Just under half of the spilled ash, about 2 million cubic yards, still chokes what used to be two river coves of Swan Pond -- the area that became the signature photos of the spill two years ago.

TVA estimates the cleanup will cost as much as $1.2 billion -- the equivalent of 69 cents more each month from every man woman and child in the utility's seven-state coverage area for the next 15 years.

Since the spill, TVA has dredged 3.5 million cubic yards of ash and sediment from the main stem of the Emory River. The last train shipment of that ash left about a month ago for Perry County, Ala., bound for a landfill there.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the utility has spent $47 million to purchase 174 properties affected by the spill, and the utility has pledged $43 million in reparations money to the local municipalities and Roane County.

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

McCracken said TVA officials haven't decided yet what to do with the 174 properties and empty homes it now owns.

"They may be razed and this area be made a natural area," he said.

Some may be offered for resale, Martocci said.

Although nearly 90 lawsuits have been dropped or dismissed since the spill, about 55 complaints remain in the U.S. District Court in Knoxville, according to court documents. Most are expected to be heard in late 2011.

TVA also has paid for or partnered in health studies that indicate there have been no adverse health effects, but even officials involved in the studies have said there may not be enough data to know with certainty.

What's to come?

Craig Zeller, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ash cleanup project manager, expects TVA contractors to begin rebuilding the failed wall of the ash pond in February.

When the new wall is complete, TVA plans to move the remaining spilled ash back into that landfill, then seal it.

TVA's board last year approved a resolution to spend up to $2 billion to convert all of its ash and gypsum ponds from wet storage to dry storage within eight to 10 years. The goal, they said, is to have the safest and most thoroughly inspected impoundments in the industry.

Local leaders acknowledge that TVA has made progress with the cleanup and reparations, but they are divided on whether the community can ever be "made whole."

Kingston Mayor Troy Beets is optimistic.

"We'll get $5 million to expand this sewage treatment plant," he said, motioning to the city's small existing plant. "When it's done, it will double our capacity and allow us to grow and attract industry."

Roane County Commissioner Randy Ellis, who grew up in Swan Pond, is less upbeat.

"I think we still have a long time to go to overcome the stigma" of a polluted community, he said. "I don't think TVA will ever be able to make us 100 percent whole."

Martocci said TVA's reparation pledges to local governments also include $1.9 million to pay for the renovation of Harriman's Princess Theater and $32 million for Roane County schools.

Ellis said TVA took "the cheap way out" in designing and maintaining the waste system for the Kingston plant. Now, reparations aside, the utility must work long and hard to rebuild the community's trust, he said.

A national legacy

The spill's national legacy also is still playing out.

The disaster -- so dubbed by TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore when he spoke to a high school gymnasium full of angry people three days after the spill -- ignited calls for the EPA and Congress to better police the 431 ash ponds across the nation.

The ash contains toxic elements such as arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium. But it is regulated as non-hazardous waste.

Power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the ash each year. About 43 percent is recycled into products such as cement or drywall, but the rest is dumped into open landfill pits -- most unlined -- such as the one that collapsed in Harriman.

In October 2009, EPA issued a proposed rule that would designate the ash as hazardous waste that needed special handling to be regulated at the federal level. But when the rule was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget seven months later, there were two potential new rules.

One would designate coal ash as special waste under federal oversight, while the other would allow power plants to continue treating it as nonhazardous and leave regulation largely to individual states.

Since then, EPA has received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, but has not announced a decision.

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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hvchronic said...
December 22, 2010 at 1:16 p.m.
alohaboy said...

TVA also has paid for or partnered in health studies that indicate there have been no adverse health effects, but even officials involved in the studies have said there may not be enough data to know with certainty.

That's about what they said about 'ground zero' and Congress is about to pass a $6.2 Billion health care bill to cover first responders at 9/11.

December 22, 2010 at 3:43 p.m.

If you believe the EPA is powerless to force the TVA to correct its environmentally haphazard ways, please think again. Only one example has to come to mind, the takeover by EPA of the Kingston debacle clean up now under the supervision of the EPA.

Then after mandating a successful completion of the hazardous waste material matter, EPA can use it as a show-horse of what should be done in a non-regulatory way.

And so go two federal agencies sparring all the way while nonplussed ratepayers continue paying mounting environmental bills.

There is, of course, a solution...

Ernest Norsworthy

December 24, 2010 at 6:18 p.m.
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