Ash spill milestone marks need to look ahead

Ash spill milestone marks need to look ahead

July 3rd, 2013 in Opinion Times

Remains of a coal ash spill surround the Kingston Fossil Plant after an earthen retaining wall around the plant's ash pond broke, emptying 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the adjacent river and properties.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Water vapor streams from the top of a scrubber tower in Harriman, Tenn., at the plant four years after the coal ash spill.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

On most Saturday mornings for four and a half years, Robert M. "Bob" Deacy has sat at a particular spot on Swan Pond Circle in Harriman, Tenn., to sip coffee and reflect on the cleanup of one of the nation's largest industrial environmental accidents.

Deacy is the Tennessee Valley Authority senior vice president and executive in charge of the $1.1 billion Kingston Ash Recovery Project.

His quiet-time reflection spot was ground zero where, in 2008, a 60-foot wall of toxics-laden coal ash spilled across the Emory River and over nearly 400 acres of a rural residential community -- the infamous Kingston Ash Spill.

Last week, TVA announced the removal of a final pile of gray ash from the spill site -- the community where on a frigid Dec. 22 morning, the river and farmland suddenly became a gray moonscape of "ash bergs." About 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge breached an earthen landfill wall and belched out, carrying arsenic, selenium and other dangerous and carcinogenic toxins -- all byproducts of burning coal to make electricity.

No one was killed or seriously injured, but the destructive ooze destroyed three houses, pushing one off its foundation and across a road before smashing it into a hillside. The quicksand-like muck also damaged about a dozen more homes, left boat docks mangled and swamped, choked a spring that fed nearby wells and made pastures unusable.

Eventually, TVA would buy out 150 residents on 181 tracts of land as residents worried about their health and property values.

Deacy and TVA contract workers -- sometimes 300 a day -- since have turned the moonscape into greened-up sculpted swales. Water is returning to the in-let bays. Eventually, the community will be a park -- "a big grassy knoll" as Deacy terms it.

With EPA oversight, work will continue until late fall to build the mother of all landfill walls and reconstruct the failed ash pit.

A two-mile, earthquake-resistant, reinforced wall tied into bedrock below the Emory River and up to 70 feet deep will become the new dredge cell for most of the recovered 3 million cubic yards of ash. The rest of the ash was sent to a landfill in Alabama and a small amount remains at the bottom of the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers, which all converge there.

We paid for it. No, actually we are paying and paying and paying for it -- not as taxpayers, but as the Tennessee Valley's 9 million electric ratepayers.

TVA customers have been paying an average of 69 cents a month for the cleanup since October 2009, and we'll keep paying for it until 2024, according to TVA projections.

Coal is not the cheap fix it used to be to give us light, heat and air conditioning with the flip of a switch.

The Kingston ash spill is not the lone reason. Rather, it is just one reminder -- one wet ash dump of at least 629 other wet ash ponds, 411 dry ash landfills, 750 inactive ash dumps and hundreds of abandoned ash mines, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and Earthjustice.

Carbon dioxide clogging our atmosphere and heating up the planet drives coal costs up still more as new government air quality rules take shape.

Power demands aren't keeping up. In fact, power demand is down.

TVA's new CEO and president, Bill Johnson, mentioned rising coal costs in an announcement last week of TVA staff buyouts to trim jobs. Johnson is changing TVA's money-saving mantra from "diet and exercise" to "safer, better, faster, leaner." That's good.

But with the ash spill cleanup and its cost as a harbinger, we offer a challenge: If TVA and EPA can engineer the massive cleanup of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash, as well as an enormous re-engineering of a failed earthen landfill, surely they can engineer some safer, better, faster, leaner energy sources.

Let's engineer and pay it forward.