Tennessee: Grassroots ash effort grows Internet roots

Tennessee: Grassroots ash effort grows Internet roots

February 3rd, 2009 by Pam Sohn in Local Regional News

HARRIMAN, Tenn. - Arsenic levels many times higher than drinking water standards were found in river water nearest the coal ash spill from TVA's Kingston power plant - the highest-yet levels of toxic and heavy metals, according to a report released Monday.

Staff Photo by Patrick Smith A home in the Swan Pond Lake Road community which was surrounded with several feet of sediment has now been cleaned off after the TVA coal ash spill on Dec. 22. The United Mountain Defense organization continues to providing their own testing records to help concerned citizens weary of TVA's information.

Staff Photo by Patrick Smith A home in the...

"The issues are very alarming, and the report on the contaminated waters is real. The dangers are real," said Sarah McCoin, a Harriman resident.

But the samples weren't taken by TVA or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. And the report released Monday did not come through a government entity.

Everything was gathered, reported and steered by a collection of grassroots organizations - some from Tennessee, some from Washington, D.C. - wanting to focus attention on the widely differing sample results provided by TVA checks and those provided by volunteers working with Appalachian State University and Duke University.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said Monday that utility personnel are eager to review the results of the Duke University report, which found the highest-yet levels of toxic and heavy metals in the rivers near the spill, including levels anywhere from two to 20 times the drinking water standard 4 1/2 miles downstream.

"We take these reports very seriously," he said. "We want to know where they are doing the testing."

In the days immediately after the spill, TVA officials said the coal-ash was inert and shouldn't be harmful to humans or water supplies. After getting the independent test results back, Ms. McCoin - who recently announced the creation of the Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network - said Monday she feels misled by what she called "TVA's false sense of security."

After the grassy slopes of TVA's 60-foot landfill gave way and buried a river and some Roane County properties, a groundswell of grassroots groups started providing a third outlet for information about the disaster beyond TVA and environmental regulators.

"What you're seeing is the merging of two powerful forces: Traditional grassroots organizing and what we're calling netroots organizing. It puts more power in the hands of the people," said Rob Perks, director of the center for advocacy campaigns for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group.

TVA's Mr. Francis said the agency wants to do the right thing "and we will do the right thing." TVA is doing everything it can to speed the cleanup and protect the community and doesn't mind the grassroots groups' critical claims, he said.

"The groups can be a great source of information to protect our workers and the public," he said. "If they know something we don't, we want to know it."

who's involved

The Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project took the testing results from the river samples and put together the report released Monday. Members of the Tennessee-based United Mountain Defense and other volunteers collected the samples.

On Monday, the Environmental Integrity Project put up a Google map pinpointing the 16 sites where the water samples were taken.

Away from the spill site, the Tennessee Clean Water Network is pushing state officials for tougher policies, while groups such as the Sierra Club, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Environmental Integrity Project are working to influence the U.S. Congress.

Just before Christmas, 1.1 billion gallons of coal-ash sludge erupted from a retention pond near the Kingston Fossil Plant when an earthen wall collapsed, burying 300 acres, 42 homes and a section of the once-glassy Emory River.

TVA quickly apologized and promised to cleanup the mess and help affected families. But just as quickly - even before TVA could send teams door-to-door to the homes directly affected - a group of college students and a couple of seasoned environmental advocates carried bottled water and fact sheets to local residents.

Five days later, Tennessee Valley Authority President and CEO Tom Kilgore began telling residents and journalists that TVA scientists were checking the water "just in case." Meanwhile, 43-year-old Donna Lisenby, the Watauga Riverkeeper, was in her kayak in below-freezing temperatures, taking water samples and tagging them for study.

On New Year's Eve, as TVA personnel corralled media representatives in a parking lot behind the Kingston Fossil Plant for a photo opportunity of Gov. Phil Bredesen rolling ash in his palm, the grassroots group was posting its first water sample results and an aerial view of the nation's largest-to-date industrial accident.

Testing protocol

In recent weeks, Matt Landon, 30, has spent several days arranging interviews and tours for members of the media in the ash site neighborhoods. While cameras clicked and recorders rolled, he strapped a respirator over his face and donned rubber gloves to take a sample of sediment from a sludge-filled inlet of the Emory River.

Mr. Landon, who describes himself as a full-time volunteer staffer with United Mountain Defense, said he cut his teeth on grassroots organizing in the ongoing mountaintop removal fight in upper East Tennessee.

United Mountain Defense, a nonprofit organization that has launched anti-coal protests in the past, was able to move to Harriman quickly after the spill, he said, because of the work the group has done for the past five years in the Appalachians.

Rick Parrish, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said TVA's coal ash spill is a textbook case of how grassroots activism is supposed to work.

"Thus far, everyone has been pretty cooperative," he said. "There's more than enough work for all these groups to do, and they are talking to each other to maximize their efforts. It has been good."

Ms. Lisenby said the result has been a quick, third set of information provided to the public.

"Before you only got to hear from the regulator and the polluter," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.