At first Terry and Sandy Gupton were worried just for their registered herd of Gelvey cattle, but now they are frightened for themselves.
They live on a farm bordering a stretch of the Emory River clogged with ash sludge from the Dec. 22 TVA coal ash spill. Filmy water, laden with what TVA officials have called the cenospheres of coal ash, backs up onto their pastures every time it rains.
"We have both tested positive for heavy metals in our bodies," Mr. Gupton said recently. "We both have increased respiratory problems with asthma. ... We feel that we need to relocate to get away from the spill site."
A new Duke University study suggests the couple has reason to worry. The study, published this month in "Environmental Science & Technology" magazine, says the ash contains high levels of toxic metals and radiation.
Because it dries easily and blows around, the ash poses a severe health threat near the spill and wherever it is carried by the wind, the study states.
"The high concentrations of trace metals and radioactivity reported in this study for the bulk TVA coal ash are expected to magnify as fine fractions of fly ash which may be resuspended and deposited in the human respiratory system," the report states.
Joe Hoagland, the Tennessee Valley Authority's vice president for environment, science and technology, said he appreciates other scientists taking a look at some of these issues.
"It makes us make sure we're not missing something," he said. "There are some things in the study that we do agree with."
The utility has increased air monitoring around the spill site, he said.
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, the study states.
"I wouldn't want to inhale either of these things (dust with toxic metals or dust with radioactive material) for a long period of time - or even a short period of time if I had lung problems," said Gregory V. Button, a University of Tennessee at Knoxville professor and medical anthropologist with a background in public health.
"There's a lot of possibility here for exposing large populations with what may be very high concentrations of ash contaminated with a combination of toxic materials," he said.
Mr. Hoagland said the TVA is taking precautions.
The utility first used only hand-held monitors that caught snatches of ambient air to check for particles, and officials told residents that was adequate.
Now the agency has installed a number of stationary 24-hour monitors to determine one-hour and eight-hour dust concentrations, Mr. Hoagland said. None has exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dust standards, he said.
"I do know there's a health concern about breathing the particles, so that's why we're monitoring so heavily and taking the steps to make sure we minimize the dust that gets taken up," he said.
TVA officials consistently have noted that the 1.2 billion gallons of ash that spilled into the Emory River and over 300 acres of residential farm land is classified as not hazardous for landfill purposes. The utility also said its workmen in the ash cleanup areas did not need masks, nor did residents.
But utility officials acknowledged that, soon after the spill, the ash sludge could become airborne if dried and cause breathing problems for people with respiratory conditions.
TVA has been spraying chemicals to create a crust over the first few inches of ash, and it has poured fertilizer and grass seed from helicopters to try to sod the ash and hold down wind erosion.
The trucks also are being washed down before they leave.
"We're trying to keep all of that (ash) material on site because that is something we've got to keep track of," Mr. Hoagland said. "So far we've done well. Granted, it's also rained a lot."
Looking for help
Dr. Button said he doesn't feel the grass and crusts and wash-downs are enough.
"Probably only a quarter of the (spill) area at best is covered with grass. They're still moving a lot of that ash around," he said. "Even if you were successful at getting it all in grass, grass doesn't cover an entire surface and in dry conditions and wind, soil will still blow off."
Dr. Button and Harriman, Tenn., resident Sarah McCoin say they are deeply disappointed that federal health and environment officials have not agreed to do a federal health assessment or a long-term health study of the area's residents. Both wrote letters seeking such an assessment.
"I had asked that the children in the area be tested - just the children, just in the impact area," said Ms. McCoin. "They're denying that. ... It's totally inappropriate that they just say 'sorry.'"
The Guptons continue to hope TVA will buy them out, as it has many of their neighbors with less property.
Mr. Gupton said the utility did make them an offer. They countered, and TVA withdrew its offer, he said.
"Our farm is the largest acreage affected," he said. "TVA does not want to admit that the spill has devastated our lives, tainted our land and reduced our livelihood to a fraction of what it was before the spill."