Coal ash lawsuit points to health hazards in Harriman, Tenn.

Coal ash lawsuit points to health hazards in Harriman, Tenn.

August 28th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Staff File Photo by Patrick Smith United Mountain Defense volunteer Matt Landon prepares to fill another jar with sediment to be tested from the sludge left in the Swan Pond Lake Road community after the TVA coal ash spill on Dec. 22, 2008. The United Mountain Defense organization is providing its own testing records to help concerned citizens weary of TVA's information.

In four short months it will have been five years since the Kingston Ash Spill became a household phrase in the Southeast after an earthen dike broke and unleashed 50 years of wet coal ash slime on a sleepy community along the Emory River in Harriman, Tenn.

When we say 50 years of coal ash slime, we mean the toxic remains of waste from burning coal to make electricity. Even before the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, scientists knew the dangers of breathing air polluted with coal-fired smoke and ash particles. The wet treatment of coal waste -- scrubbed from the burners, moistened and tossed into a pit-turned-60-foot-landfill -- was a stopgap way to keep more silica, mercury, selenium, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants out the air and water.

But then the unthinkable happened. A poorly maintained, ever-growing, 50-year-old landfill wall ruptured, and most of toxic stew inside spilled over 300 acres of neighborhood yards and fields and into the Emory River. In all, some 5.4 million cubic yards of muck -- more than a billion gallons -- suddenly was exposed to sun, rain, air and wind.

Eventually, the wetness that theoretically had kept the ash dangers at acceptable levels dried up. As earth movers labored over the massive site to scoop up coal ash and prepare it to be re-interred, the electric power making company that owns Kingston Fossil Plant, Tennessee Valley Authority, brought in contractors to clean up the mess, including workers to keep the site -- as best as possible -- watered down and seeded with a crusty grass-growing mix intended to keep the dust down.

That alone, should have been a give-away that the ash was not safe, although TVA maintained that there was no danger to human health there.

But this week, about 50 workers for an early contractor on the site, Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., filed a class-action federal lawsuit alleging that the company they worked for knowingly exposed subcontracted workers at the Kingston Fossil Plant to toxic chemicals during cleanup.

Many times, as reporters and photographers visited the spill site and reported on the clean-up and attended public forums, we were told no masks were needed -- even for the workers who were literally in the middle of the ash, scooping it up with giant machines. Everything was safe, according to TVA.

Just days after the spill, then-TVA CEO Tom Kilgore handed a squishy ball of the ash to then-Gov. Jim Bredesen -- much to the dismay of Bredeson's Department of Health head. She not only admonished the governor to immediately wash his hands, but she also told reporters who had walked through the muck to watch that they should be sure to wash their shoes, and not take them in their houses to do so.

A number of other experts begged to differ with TVA, and residents moved away in fear, saying their physicians advised it.

A University of Tennessee disaster researcher, Dr. Gregory Button, a faculty member in the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology, especially questioned TVA's role in writing a report prepared by the Tennessee Health Department and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. That report found "no harm" to the community's health is expected from the spill. Button said TVA's part in the effort was a conflict of interest. Meanwhile other nongovernmental reports and data did raise cautions, including research studies done by Duke University as well as Appalachian State University and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.

Duke's study raised serious concerns about long-term dangers from breathing airborne ash. Ongoing Appalachian State and aquarium research found high levels of toxic laden ash in fish tissues and in water, conflicting with TVA and state findings. The reports even raised questions about how and where TVA and the state environmental regulators were sampling for their studies.

Eventually EPA moved onsite, issuing a statement saying the coal ash contained arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium and zinc, which are hazardous substances as defined under Superfund guidelines. Ultimately EPA stayed to oversee what became a corporate-financed cousin of taxpayer-funded cleanups known as Superfund. TVA has estimated it will spend $1.1 billion on the remediation, which still is not complete.

EPA also introduced air monitoring efforts and a protocol for going onto and coming off the site, including a very high-profile vehicle washing and boot-washing station, demonstrated by Leslie Stahl on 60 minutes.

The latest lawsuit ultimately will play out in court. In another lawsuit, TVA already has been found liable for the dike rupture and spill.

If there's a moral here, it is this: There are nearly 600 wet coal ash impoundments around the country that are more than three decades old. Nearly 75 percent are unlined. If anyone can think there is no danger from that ash in either our water or our air, then why was it cleaned up at all? Why not just plant grass on it and move on?

Why? Because it can't be safe. Common sense, which apparently is not all that common, would tell us that. The real question is why the public and the workers around Harriman and Kingston were ever told differently?