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

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

January 13th, 2009 by Pam Sohn in Local Regional News

Gypsum and ash that leaked Friday from a Widows Creek Fossil Plant dump in Alabama could contain even more toxic metals than ash spilled in Kingston, Tenn., just before Christmas, according to an analysis of TVA data in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.

The gypsum pond that leaked about 10,000 gallons last week near Stevenson, Ala., was contaminated with fly ash, the same substance that spilled in Kingston, Tenn, but an analysis of TVA's substance releases, reported to the EPA, found the federal utility disposed of more toxic heavy metals at Widows Creek than at Kingston.

In 2006, TVA told EPA it poured 332,000 pounds of arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium and thallium into the Alabama wet ash pond landfill, while in the same year the agency put 227,200 pounds of those materials into the Kingston wet ash landfill. Over seven years beginning in 2000, the Widows Creek landfill received more than 2.4 million pounds of heavy metals in wet ash, while Kingston received more than 1.7 million pounds, according to TVA reports.

While the Widows Creek containment pond that leaked Friday primarily holds gypsum, a nontoxic byproduct of coal burning, it also contained enough fly ash that the material could not be sold for wallboard manufacturing as TVA does at other plants, TVA spokesman John Moulton confirmed Monday.

TVA still sells some of the gypsum and fly ash from Widows Creek to Signal Mountain Cement Co. in Chattanooga, he said.

The fly ash addition to the gypsum pond is the result of TVA's decision in 1992 not to repair a faulty air pollution control device used to remove ash from a boiler at Widows Creek. Instead, TVA relied upon a scrubber installed on the unit to capture both fly ash and airborne sulfur dioxide emissions, according to TVA and EPA records. While the scrubber helped TVA limit air pollution from Widows Creek, some of the fly ash not caught by the scrubber ended up in retention ponds.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management estimates about 10,000 gallons of the ash-tainted gypsum spilled out of a retention pond at Widows Creek, eventually winding up in the Tennessee River. The cap on a pipe leading out of the gypsum pond was not sealed, officials said.

At 1.1 billion gallons, the Tennessee spill was far larger than Widows Creek. But Eric Schaeffer, director of Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of former EPA enforcement attorneys, said the second accident puts a spotlight on what he already had called under-regulated coal dump sites.

"We can no longer afford to ignore this problem and we certainly can't be content to just sit around and wait for the next Tennessee-style disaster to happen," Mr. Schaeffer said in a statement.

TVA, however, has said the newest spill poses no danger, and on Monday, the utility released water test data showing there were no metals above drinking water standards in samples taken Friday from the Tennessee River downstream from the spill at Widows Creek.

"The samples taken on the Tennessee River meet primary drinking water standards for metals," states a Tennessee Valley Authority news release. "Downstream samples were consistent with upstream samples from the TVA facility."

One sample was taken about 1,000 yards upstream from the mouth of Widows Creek and another about 1,000 yards downstream. A third sample was taken in the gypsum pond on TVA property.

A sediment sample also was taken from the bank between the pond and Widows Creek. Data from the solid material were well below levels considered hazardous, TVA officials said.

EPA officials have said hazardous and non-hazardous classifications for solids such as sludge is a determination intended to help regulators place materials in the correct kind of landfill. Calling the material nonhazardous does not mean it is not a human health concern, they said.

TVA and EPA continue to sample the water around Widows Creek independently, TVA officials said.

UT offers to help

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee will present a proposal today to the TVA, offering help with environmental testing and engineering analysis for the cleanup of the spill at the Kingston plant.

UT Executive Vice President David Milhorn said Monday that UT faculty in Knoxville "have a lot of expertise with water issues and river cleanup projects" and could provide an authoritative, independent assessment of alternatives for the ash cleanup in Roane County just west of Knoxville.

"We have the expertise to evaluate the site and help TVA plan some long-term studies to assess any long-term environmental effects that might occur around the spill site," Dr. Milhorn said. "TVA contacted us and we are now putting together a written proposal to them, spelling out what we can do to help as an independent, third party."

UT professors Randy Gentry, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Gary Saylor, founding director of the UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology who previously worked on the Chattanooga Creek cleanup, are preparing the proposal for both TVA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to consider, officials said.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the utility is studying "a variety of alternatives" to clean up the fly ash and muck that spilled over about 300 acres of Roane County last month when an ash pond ruptured. The spill is expected to take months to clean up fully and to repair damaged homes and properties.