HARRIMAN, Tenn. -- Giant amphibious earthmovers crawl through toxic muck clogging the Emory River six months after the Kingston ash spill, but they're doing more ash sculpting than removal.
Only about 270 cubic yards of the more than 5 billion cubic yards spilled have been dredged, TVA officials say.
On Terry Gupton's nearby farm, TVA contractors created a gravel ditch to siphon ash-laden water from the backed-up Emory River off land where he once harvested hay and let his registered Gelvey cattle graze. Ash, left behind as the water drained, remains on the earth like coffee dregs in an empty cup.
"It's just a wasteland now," Mr. Gupton said, waving his arm toward the pasture. "I've reduced my herd because I don't have enough pasture left to support them. I can't grow hay here anymore."
The costs of TVA's massive ash spill at the utility's Kingston Fossil Plant can't begin to be counted yet. The agency estimates cleanup alone will be about $1 billion and, to date, the work has averaged $1 million a day.
But the costs in health, lost property value and good will and future electricity production using more expensive ash-storage methods have yet to be tallied by TVA or other utilities operating similar coal plants and wet-ash landfills around the country.
As TVA tries to plan the future and the full costs of making power with coal, many unknowns affect the utility's rising coal expense, not the least of which is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision expected later this year. EPA officials have said they are weighing whether the government will continue to regulate coal ash as a nonhazardous waste or label it a hazardous waste.
The ash's curent nonhazardous designation means it can be disposed of in cheaper, less-regulated landfills. EPA, and now even TVA, have acknowledged that coal ash contains hazardous materials including arsenic, selenium and lead.
"Certainly, if EPA regulates this, it will increase our cost," said John Myers, senior manager for environmental strategy and management at TVA.
TVA officials, however, have been able to calculate costs enough to indicate electric bills might double because of ash and other coal-related expenses.
When coal was king
Coal is 60 percent of the fuel source for TVA power, and it has been the lowest-cost, continually available fuel the utility could get.
While hydropower from the Tennessee River is by far the cheapest power source, the utility already has maxed out what the river and its feeder streams can offer, providing about 8 percent to 10 percent of TVA's power.
Nuclear power, at 30 percent now of TVA's power production, still would produce only about 40 percent of the Tennessee Valley's seven-state power needs, even if new reactors at Bellefonte and Watts Bar Unit 2 come on line by 2020.
In the 1950s and 1960s, most fly ash from TVA's 11 coal plants was released directly into the air through power plants' smokestacks. But environmental laws now require coal-fired power plants to capture the ash before it enters the air.
Ironically, as the scrubbers cleaned the air, the ash waste they collected became more toxic. And so did the ash ponds and landfills where ash was dumped.
TVA historically has spent only a fraction as much on coal ash disposal as it spent on reducing air emissions from coal plants. But TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill McCollum said the cost of operating coal-fired power plants will go up as the agency plans to switch its wet storage ash ponds to dry ash storage -- a decision TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore announced almost immediately after the Kingston spill.
Mr. McCollum said he doesn't know how much the switch will cost, but he acknowledged that fallout from the spill, coupled with other emerging concerns about coal's continuing air pollution contributions to climate change, could mean doubled costs.
"Coal is challenged," he said. "The processing of dry ash is more expensive."
Landscape at Harriman
Last week, TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said TVA has purchased 118 properties in Harriman and remains in negotiation over other properties.
Altogether, TVA has received more than 500 claims on everything from property damage to health to loss of business and loss of property value, she said.
Anda Ray, TVA's top environmental officer, points to Church Slough as the showcase "cleaned up" spot. Slightly smaller than Lake Chickamauga Jr., Church Slough is a postage stamp compared with the rest of the ash site. But it is a source of pride for Ms. Ray.
"All of the ash is gone. The fauna is back. The birds are back in the spring-fed water. It is done," she recently told The Associated Press. "That is kind of our hope for how the rest of it will look when we are finished."
At Kingston, dredged ash is being stored temporarily on a parking lot behind the TVA plant. Eventually, TVA officials hope the ash can be disposed of in double-lined landfills in other states. Tennessee officials have said the ash will not be landfilled in the Volunteer State.
Meanwhile, because of concerns that the ash might dry up and blow into neighborhoods, TVA is spraying it with chemicals to form a crusty top layer, then seeding it with grass.
A Duke University study published last month in Environmental Science & Technology magazine states that the ash contains high levels of toxic metals and radiation. The ash poses "a severe health threat" wherever it is carried by the wind, according to the study.
TVA officials said the utility has increased air monitoring around the spill site.
Government records indicate there are about 140 coal ash ponds and landfills in the United States. A recent government investigation found 43 of them in 26 communities are so hazardous, the Army Corps of Engineers won't disclose their locations, citing homeland security concerns.
At a public meeting last week in Roane County, residents lined up to express dismay and ask questions of TVA, EPA and Tennessee state environmental regulators.
One woman asked TVA's Ms. Ray when the agency will provide cleanup workers with protective gear and a way to clean up without bringing their ash-laden boots and clothing home to their families.
Ms. Ray said hazardous training is to begin soon for the workers.
A couple living miles downstream on the Watts Bar Reservoir took TVA to task for saying they are "not affected" after ash carried by recent high water became trapped in a cove beside their home.
"You sent people in haz suits to vacuum it up several times, but you say it's not a problem for us?" the man asked.
Chuck Head, senior director for land resources with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said high water from flooding rains is why TVA and regulators are working hard to get the ash out of the river as quickly as possible. They want to prevent it from being carried downstream during another storm, he said.
In closing the two-hour meeting, which was supposed to last only one hour, Ms. Ray told the audience TVA wants to regain their trust.
"But I am not ignorant, and I know that many of you did not get the answers you wanted today," she said. "I'm realistic (enough) to know that whatever TVA does it will make some people satisfied and some people won't be satisfied. But we are committed. And we are responsible to clean this mess up. And we're going to do that."
Coal ash has been recognized in other studies as a human carcinogen and associated with increased risks of skin, lung and bladder cancers. Arsenic and radium exposures in humans also are associated with increased risks of skin, lung, liver, leukemia, breast, bladder and bone cancers.
Source: Duke University ash study, released in May
TVA costs per megawatt hour to make power:
* $25 to $35 with coal
* $20 with nuclear reactors
* $5 to $8 with hydro-generation in dams
* $50 to $300 with renewables such as wind and solar energy
Source: TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill McCollum