HARRIMAN, Tenn. - Streets of empty houses sit with dark windows around the glittering coves of the Emory River.
A glance away, giant earth-moving machines scoop, pull and push ash, the unwelcome trespasser that nearly three years ago belched from a failed landfill to ooze over 300 acres and the river. As the machines reshape the muck, massive tankers continually sprinkle water to keep dangerous silica floaters out of the air and out of people's lungs.
One by one, more than 180 homeowners packed up and left, saying they had come to fear that even if they survived health threats they could barely pronounce, their land values and financial futures could not.
"We have to be out by mid-January," said Gary Topmiller, whose two-story brick house sits on a cul-de-sac with the-once picturesque river wrapping around it.
Now his view is the gray horizon of a disaster cleanup.
"A Realtor has told me, 'Your property's not worth anything,' he said. "So we decided to get out before we got stuck here."
Just up the street, holdout Charlotte Strandberg doesn't have the harsh view of the landscape unless she turns her head.
Still, she says, she's concerned. But at 72, the widow of one year is also sentimental.
BY THE NUMBERS
• 5.4 million cubic yards [or 1.2 billion gallons]: spilled ash
• $1.2 billion: Estimated final cleanup cost
• 180: Properties purchased
• 80 feet: Depth of underground retainer wall
• 11 miles: Length of walls within walls in the 2-mile enclosure
• 450: Cleanup workers onsite daily
• 14,000: Tons of coal consumed daily when Kingston plant is at full power.
She cherishes the small log home she and her husband helped contractors build in a curl of the Emory River 20 years ago.
"I love it here," she said. "But I understand why they [neighbors] are all going."
The Kingston wall
When the spill happened in December 2008, the walls of a 50-foot dike holding the ash above the river simply melted one evening after days of rain.
In a split second, the mountain-shaped landfill stuffed with decades of waste from making coal-fired electricity rolled like a tsunami across a river inlet and into a nation's awareness.
Experts and engineers differ on exactly what happened and how, but the general consensus is that a layer of ash piled too high and too wet on a poor foundation just couldn't hold.
Just who is responsible, and how, is playing out now and in coming months in a federal courtroom in Knoxville.
Meanwhile, six days a week, 450 workers a day toil on the cleanup that TVA estimates will cost about $1.2 billion. The cleanup workers outnumber the 300 employees inside the Kingston power plant making electricity for 670,000 homes.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has scooped away about half of the 5.4 million cubic yards of ash containing arsenic, selenium and other toxic compounds.
TVA has shipped more than 3.5 million cubic yards of ash and sediment by train to a landfill in Alabama. That ash was dredged from the Emory River.
But the remaining ash - what's still on land - will be moved back into the failed "dredge cell" that was and will be treated as a landfill.
This time, it will be held in place by what the contractor has told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be one of the longest and largest underground retaining walls ever engineered.
Work to build the two-mile, circular wall began in July. The wall will surround about 200 acres, but it will be invisible.
Steve McCracken, general manager of the Kingston ash spill recovery site, describes the engineering feat as really totaling 11 miles because it will be walls within walls within walls.
In some places, the walls will reach 80 feet deep to anchor in the bedrock below the river.
"It looks like a railroad track," says McCracken, pointing to a diagram.
And it will withstand an earthquake of 6.0 from the East Tennessee seismic zone or 7.6 from the New Madrid fault line near Memphis, according to Craig Zeller, EPA's Kingston cleanup project manager.
Estimated to cost between $25 million and $50 million, the wall will entomb the remaining ash. It will be capped with clay and topsoil from a nearby farm that TVA bought from Terry and Sandy Gupton when the ash contaminated their pastures.
After it is covered and seeded, the one-of-a-kind landfill will never be used again.
"This is where the engineering took us," said Zeller. "This is a very unique closure, and most ash sites will not be closed out this way, but because of the issue here, this one is being closed out to a higher standard."
Despite the moves, the lawsuits and the cleanup, it will be a long time before the full impact of the spill will be clear.
The utility is self-funding, so ratepayers in the seven-state region will pay the tab with higher electric bills. TVA already has acknowledged that ratepayers are spending about 69 cents a month for the cleanup.
TVA also has announced plans to develop public recreation areas and ballparks, greenways, walking trails and boat ramps on the properties it has purchased.
And the utility has pledged to convert to dry storage for coal ash at all of its 11 coal-powered plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
In the Knoxville courtroom before the trial began, the judge agreed that as a federal agency, TVA is protected from some liability claims for punitive damages, personal injury and emotional distress. He has allowed claims for property damages, trespass and nuisance to go forward.
TVA also contends that under Tennessee law it has no legal duty to keep its reservoirs and shorelines safe for the plaintiffs' recreational use and enjoyment.
And the utility has said plaintiffs have not shown that ash particles were transmitted to their properties in "concentrations sufficient to cause property damage and/or personal injury or to constitute a taking."
While hundreds of people have stakes in the court fight, the first trial will deal only with liability. A Nov. 1 trial will individually decide any damages.
TVA continues to say it is "committed to restoring the Kingston area."
The utility is providing health screenings on request to affected residents, and giving $43 million to a Roane County foundation for community betterment.
"This is looking better already," said McCracken last week, overlooking the cleanup site. "And it will be better still."