KINGSTON, Tenn. - Environmental activist Erin Brockovich looked at what used to be a cove of the Emory River here on Thursday and said she didn't know what to think.
"It looks like an earthquake or tornado or a volcanic eruption of some kind might have hit," she said Thursday.
In front of her was the devastation wrought Dec. 22 when a Tennessee Valley Authority earthen dam collapsed. The dam was holding back an industrial landfill of coal ash waste produced at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a coal power generating facility.
Ms. Brockovich, a law firm representative made famous by a Julia Roberts movie from 2000 bearing her name, arrived in Kingston and Harriman to view the site and talk with residents after receiving e-mails from local people who told her they felt duped, she said.
"They feel the reports (of water sampling and air sampling) are inconsistent," she said. "They're being told, 'Everything is fine, drink the water.' Then they're told, 'If you're worried about drinking the water, boil it first.' ...That may not be the best information."
Former Swan Circle Road residents Crystell Flinn and her daughter Holly Schean took Ms. Brockovich and representatives of the New York-based Weitz & Luxenberg law firm to the site where their home was picked up off its foundation, carried across a road and crumpled against a small ridge.
The road and the river cove that once ran below the landfill and stacks of the Kingston power plant are gone, covered with mounds of sludge that backhoes worked feverishly Thursday to smooth in preparation for TVA to cover with hydro-seed.
The agency hopes to cover the ash before drying sun can make it airborne. Breathing the ash could be a health hazard, TVA and environmental health officials have said.
Ms. Brockovich's first effort Thursday to view the scene was thwarted by TVA public relations officials who blocked a caravan of about six cars at a checkpoint on Swan Lake Road. When Ms. Flinn led the group into the site by a back road, TVA police drove up to keep a watchful eye.
Despite TVA's actions Thursday, Ms. Flinn said the utility has rented a house for her family, and Ms. Schean said TVA personnel have been good to them.
Ms. Brockovich said she would meet privately with more residents Thursday evening, and she planned a public meeting with residents and local citizens on Friday.
At a news conference before she saw the slide, she told reporters she will view the site from the air on Friday.
Local resident Russ Lewis told her about local housing developments he believes were built on fly ash landfills.
"I'm wondering if they are safe," he said.
Brad Mays, of Knoxville, said he is concerned about mulch made with the ash and sold.
Ms. Brockovich told the group, "We don't have all the answers today, but we're here to help."
Upon hearing that some local officials had cautioned residents about talking with her or attorneys from Weitz & Luxenberg, she said residents should not be afraid to talk to anyone.
"Shouldn't we all do the right thing for these people?" she asked. "For me, it's about a community that doesn't feel they're being told the truth."