Neighbors balk at selling land next to ash ponds

Neighbors balk at selling land next to ash ponds

October 16th, 2009 in News

Staff Photo by Tim Barber Jere McCraw and his family have lived on a 300-acre farm near Bridgeport, Ala., since the early 1800s. The Tennessee Valley Authority wants his land in an effort to protect the utility from suits that may come as a result of coal ash storage near Mr. McCraw's property.

BRIDGEPORT, Ala. - As Jere McCraw tends the family cemetery where six generations of his ancestors are buried, he looks warily at the ash storage ponds built only a few hundred yards away, next to TVA's Widows Creek Fossil Plant.

Mr. McCraw and his older brother, JoJohn, worry that a pond and a well at their family farm may be polluted from the nearby coal plant's ponds, whose ash contains elevated levels of arsenic, lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals. But they insist they don't want to give up the 300-acre property their family has owned and farmed since 1830.

The historic site, where Civil War enthusiasts gather every March to re-enact the Battle of Bridgeport, is now the site of a 21st century battle between the McCraws and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

"We definitely don't want to sell, but it's scary for us," said Jere McCraw, a 53-year-old middle school teacher and coach who lives just below one of the Widows Creek ash ponds. "We fought the federal government on this land in the Civil War. I hope it doesn't come to that again."

To limit what TVA recently calculated as a "high hazard" ash pond at the Widows Creek plant, the federal utility is buying up the land adjacent to the ash ponds where contaminated water accidentally leaked into Widows Creek in January.

The Widows Creek accident - caused when a cap came loose on a 36-inch standpipe - came less than a month after an ash pond ruptured at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. More than 1 billion gallons of ash spilled into the Emory River and nearby properties in one of the nation's biggest industrial accidents.

Under regulatory and public pressure, TVA officials have vowed that an accident like the Kingston spill will never happen again. TVA has pledged to spend more than $3 billion to clean up the Kingston spill and also to convert the wet ash storage ponds it uses at a half dozen coal plants, including the Widows Creek facility, to dry storage - a safer method - within the next decade.

buying a buffer

In the meantime, TVA already has acquired five properties and three homes near Widows Creek and spent another $2 million to upgrade the storage pond where the January spill occurred.

"As we go forward, we want to be state of the art in how we dispose of our coal combustion products," TVA President Tom Kilgore said recently. "At Widows Creek, there are people living there within sight of the top of that impound (where coal ash and gypsum - byproducts of burning coal - are put into ponds). We've bought their property and moved them to other places and we hope that will alleviate the potential risk there."

Bob Deacy, TVA's senior vice president for clean strategies and project development, said that by acquiring the land near the ash ponds and by inspecting and reshaping the slope of the earthen dam around the ponds, the risk rating at Widows Creek may be downgraded.

"These improvements should help ensure that these impoundments have good stability, but eventually it is our intent to get out of this type of wet storage of ash altogether," he said. "The purpose of buying these homes is to potentially reduce the high risk classification at Widows Creek as well as to give us more land we could eventually use in other ways for the disposal of ash."

In the wake of the Kingston spill, TVA this year reclassified four of its coal plants as high risk because inspectors determined that another such spill from an ash pond could threaten nearby residents or motorists. Mr. Deacy said the risk doesn't reflect the chance of a spill, just the potential threat to those living near the plant.

giving up the farm

Darren McCloud, a quality director for the Beaulieu of America plant in Bridgeport, sold 66 acres just north of the Widows Creek ash ponds this summer to TVA.

"We built our home, raised our children and lived there 16 years, so at first we did not want to sell," Mr. McCloud said. "But when we saw what had happened in Kingston and began talking with TVA officials and their appraisers, we finally agreed to sell in July. It's certainly been an emotional roller coaster."

Mr. McCloud, 44, is starting over, building a new home six miles away on a 42-acre site at Dorans Cove, near Russell Cave National Monument. His mother, who also sold her 16-acre home next to Widows Creek, has temporarily moved into another one of her son's houses in Bridgeport.

Mr. McCloud, who said he believes he ended up getting a fair price for his property, said he never noticed any problems with the water in two fishing ponds he had at his former home near Widows Creek.

But the McCraws are less sure about what the coal plant may be doing to their water quality.

"We're most concerned about what's going on underneath the ground with the water," said JoJohn McCraw, a 56-year-old South Pittsburg accountant who keeps a cabin on the family farm. "All the land around here is built on limestone and we're worried that the ash ponds are leaking into the cracks and crevices in the rock and seeping into our groundwater."

A pond that was dug on the McCraw's farm back in the 1940s has filled more regularly since TVA began building up the ash ponds across the road from the McCraw's property. Jere McCraw believes the thin, white coat on the surface of the pond may contain ash sentiments.

regulating coal ash

Although coal ash contains potentially hazardous amounts of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, it is not regulated as a hazardous material. Following the Kingston ash spill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pledged to issue rules for coal ash disposal before the end of 2009.

"I don't know if it is dangerous or not, but we've asked and asked both TVA or ADEM (the Alabama Department of Environmental Management) to check to see if there is a problem," Jere McCraw said.

On Tuesday, ADEM finalized a $25,000 penalty against TVA for violating state water quality rules in January when the storage pond water leaked into Widows Creek, ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes said.

While neighbors on both sides of his farm have or soon will relocate, Mr. McCraw vows to fight any takeover attempt from TVA.

"We talked with them about six weeks ago and told them we weren't interested at all in selling," he said. "We haven't heard back from them since."

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the agency is continuing to negotiate with neighbors to buy property and is studying ways to ultimately replace the ash ponds with dry ash storage.

"TVA is looking at all of its options for changing the (risk) classifications for some of those impoundments," she said. "One of those options is purchasing property; another is using different engineering designs to change some of the size and scope of the impoundments."

Mr. Deacy said he hopes to have the ash ponds at the four high-risk TVA coal plants converted to dry storage methods by 2014.

High-hazard TVA plants

* WIdows Creek, near Stevenson, Ala.

* Colbert in Northwest Alabama

* Cumberland, northwest of Nashville

* Bull Run, near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority