Call it the spill-over effect. TVA initially tried to downplay the staggering scope of the Kingston coal-ash spill. Its public relations team struck the word "catastrophe" in favor of a "sudden, accidental release" in the agency's talking points; it said the tsunami of coal ash that buried 300 acres of farm and residential land and the Emory River and flowed out to the Clinch and Tennessee rivers was mainly "inert" harmless material. Then TVA failed to issue a timely water quality report.
Kickback has been swift substantial.
The press quickly called the spill for what it is: a certified environmental disaster and, at 1.1 billion gallons, the biggest toxic industrial spill in the nation's history. TVA's ratepayers then learned that the toxic heavy metals contained in coal ash could have serious health consequences and long-term residual staying power.
That has reasonably prompted distrustful grassroots groups in the Kingston area to hook up with national environmental networks and their scientific resources in the academic community to sample water quality and learn the parameters of the health hazards they reasonably believe are still being soft-peddled.
The Kingston's grass-roots groups, environmental networks and the scientists they are working with at Duke and Appalachian State universities now form a compelling third force that citizens can use to judge what TVA and state and federal regulators report. This combination of concerned citizens, environmental watchdogs and health hazard analysts - an alliance artfully called a "netroots" organization - has now delivered an alarming water quality report on river water taken nearest the coal-ash spill.
It claims levels of arsenic - one of more than a half-dozen toxic heavy metals in coal ash - is many times higher than drinking water standards permit. Indeed, results from Duke University released last week said levels of arsenic, a deadly toxin, were anywhere from two to 20 times the drinking water standards 4-1/2 miles downstream.
The samples were analyzed to point out the wide variance in water reports issued by TVA and state and local regulators. Those have found few problems upstream of the spill near the water intake for the city of Kingston, but downstream findings have been sketchy at best.
TVA spokesman Gil Francis said the agency welcomes the interest of outside groups and their findings and would want to know everything it could about their water sampling process and the collection points.
That's an invitation that the advocacy groups now involved in monitoring the cleanup of the ash-spill should embrace as the clean-up goes forward. The clean-up will take many months, and probably years. It clearly will benefit from the efforts of outside groups. The initial clean-up plan, submitted by TVA to the state last week, shows why.
The initial plan calls for dredging just the main channel of Emory River in five segments of work. The second phase of work, not yet laid out in detail, foresees dredging the sloughs and bays of the Emory River and then removing the rock weir dam that is holding back much of the ash spill now contained in the Emory River. A third phase of work would then be undertaken to clear the coal ash that is migrating to parts of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers beyond the Emory River.
TVA officials say the dredging will have to be carefully monitored to prevent stirring up the so-called "legacy" residue of harmful nuclear-plant contamination that was deposited decades ago in effluent from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That contamination flowed into the Clinch and Tennessee rivers and now remains covered by subsequent sediment.
Unfortunately, citizens of the region, from Kingston to this and other downstream communities, will not be assured that either TVA or state and federal regulators will be completely candid about future water quality findings. Too many contaminants haunt our water supplies, and there have far too many instances at all levels of governments of suppressed or distorted information on public hazards.
"Netroots" isn't the complete remedy. But it will help assure that public information about our rivers' water quality flows more freely, and with less contamination.