1 year later: Digging out of the ashes

1 year later: Digging out of the ashes

December 22nd, 2009 by Pam Sohn in News

HARRIMAN, Tenn. -- Exactly one year has passed since 1.2 billion gallons of wet ash spilled onto East Tennessee farmland and rivers -- the nation's largest industrial spill ever -- but the environmental, health and policy implications have only just begun.

"The kind of repercussions of a disaster like this can continue for a long time," said Dr. Gregory V. Button, a University of Tennessee professor and medical anthropologist with a background in public health. "The media, politicians and policymakers lose track of that, but these are persistent problems that will need to be solved for years to come.

"It isn't over."

The accident dumped the equivalent of the contents of 12 million cement trucks onto the once-sleepy rural community of Swan Pond in Harriman and into the Emory River.

The Dec. 22 ash spill was larger than the 53 million gallons of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska or the 21,000 tons of toxic waste buried in Love Canal, N.Y.

But spill also damaged TVA credibility, called into question whether the agency should be federal or privatized and prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine the danger of ash from coal-fired power plants, opening a debate about "clean coal."

The people equation

Politics aside, residents of Harriman and Kingston, just across the Clinch River about a mile away, say their communities will never be the same. Some lost family land with treasured memories, others lost livelihoods as well as homes.

Gary Topmiller, an Oak Ridge retiree, built his dream home a few years ago on the Emory River. He had a boat and boat dock and planned for years of water fun with his grandchildren on Emory River Road.

Today, he has a front and center view of the ash dredging operation and all of its dust. TVA and EPA officials have said the dredged ash dust isn't a danger and doesn't become airborne, but Mr. Topmiller says otherwise.

Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Miles downstream from the Kinston Fossil Plant ash spill crews move floating buoys retaining sediment on the Clinch River at the 58 Landing park in Kingston, Tenn. Crews traveled to Kingston to clean up and test water samples after a coal ash spill blanketed more than 300 acres surrounding the plant.

"I have a extra room upstairs I wish (TVA CEO) Tom Kilgore would come and live in with his children or grandchildren for a year," he said.

He and his wife, Pam, have always been healthy people, until the spill brought them continual bouts of "fly ash flu."

When the EPA took over oversight of the cleanup in May, TVA stepped up aerial sprinkling and grass seeding to hold down airborne dust. Federal regulators also made TVA institute truck and boot washes for any workers or equipment on the site.

A Duke University study has said the coal ash contains high levels of toxic metals -- lead, arsenic, mercury -- and radiation. The study said the ash dries easily and, if it blows around, can pose a severe health threat near the spill.

During a TVA-sponsored media tour of the cleanup site last week, EPA's air expert Leo Francendese said residents are safe.

"There are many sources of dust," he said. "From the spill itself, I am absolutely certain dust from the site is not affecting the community."

Mr. Topmiller laughed when he heard Mr. Francendese's statement.

"Leo doesn't have to live here," he said. "We are directly downwind of the ash spill. All anybody has to do is look at our porches, and the river banks and the front of my van."

But the hardest thing he faces, he said, is that his grandchildren can't visit anymore. The family is afraid for the youngsters' health so near the spill site.

TVA EFFORTS

TVA officials have a mantra -- the agency "remains committed" to cleaning up the site and restoring the community.

"This (anniversary) is not a milestone," said Steve McCracken, the utility's general manager of the Kingston Ash Recovery Project. "The milestone will be when we've gotten all the ash out of the river. And then later when we've restored the whole site."

To date, TVA has purchased more than 150 properties in the Harriman and Kingston communities near the spill and along the Emory and Clinch rivers. It also has paid $40 million to the local governments of Roane County, Kingston and Harriman to help restore the image and economy of the community. The money has been used for education, the renovation of a theater, the entrance to an industrial park and the expansion of a sewer system.

Some residents wonder why some of the money can't go to help those who feel TVA has turned its back on them. Others say the money can never be enough to offset the spill's impact on a community that relies on attracting Rust Belt and Florida retirees to its lakeside homes.

"Our developers in Roane County are going to suffer for years," Kingston City Councilman Brant Williams has said.

Kingston Realtor Ron Hillman, an affiliate broker with Sail Away Homes & Land in Kingston, said one study found the Kingston area lake property sails down 80 percent compared to other property sales on other East Tennessee lakes last year.

"It just knocked a hole in us here," he said. "Nobody wants to buy here now."

Although TVA contractors have worked at least six days a week and sometimes around the clock, only 1 million cubic yards of ash -- or about 20 percent -- has left Harriman on freight cars bound for a landfill in Perry County, Ala., near Tuscaloosa.

"We expect to have the time-critical ash out of the river by late spring," said Dennis Yankee, environmental manager of the TVA recovery project. "We've made good progress."

When that work is done, TVA will begin removing the ash that spilled into sloughs of the Emory and onto nearby land. For now, that ash has been sculpted and covered with landscaping designed to grow grass and keep the ash from flying in the wind.

Political considerations

In the year since the spill, the event has been the subject of four subcommittee hearings in the U.S. Congress, and was the catalyst to prompt the EPA to revisit coal waste's designation as nonhazardous for the purposes of disposal.

Proven to contain at least a half dozen already-designated hazardous materials, coal waste itself could soon be regulated as a hazardous substance.

In February, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency would announce a decision about new rule-making for the coal waste disposal.

If the waste is designated hazardous, the cost of the cleanup, TVA's promise to convert its wet-ash storage ponds to dry ash and hundreds of other coal industry waste disposals efforts will cost significantly more, officials have said. How much more depends on how new regulations are written, TVA's CEO Tom Kilgore said.

TVA would not be the only power company or industry affected. The cost change could swing the pendulum of cost-benefit analyses in almost all future energy source discussions, Dr. Button said.

"The spill really has been the benchmark in the issue about the role of coal and disposal of coal waste, he said.

Aside from the national political debate, the 14 pending lawsuits against TVA over the spill have environmental groups suggesting the agency should be restructured either to a full-fledged federal entity or privatized.

DEALING WITH THE FUTURE

But the residents of Harriman and Kingston say they -- not the policymakers -- are ones left to cope with the uncertainties brought by the spill.

In the Swan Pond community, Terry and Sandy Gupton's farm still has ash on it, and every time there is heavy rain, ash-laden water backs up on the fields where they once grew corn and hay and let their registered Gelvy cattle graze. Now they can't use the contaminated land, and they've had to reduce the size of their herd.

But after the Gupton's countered TVA's only buyout offer, the utility's representative "folded his book up and left," Mr. Gupton said.

"Then we got a letter saying we 'were not affected,'" he said.

Mr. Gupton said that left him little other option but to sue.

TVA spokeswoman Anda Ray has said the agency cannot negotiate with residents who've talked to an attorney.

Mr. Topmiller said TVA made an offer on his home, but it was $75,000 short of what they believe would pay for a fair replacement.

What irked him more, he said, was a clause in the purchase agreement saying the sellers would not hold TVA responsible for any health effects from the spill now or later.

"If it's not a problem, why are they asking us to sign away our health rights?" he said.