Nature taking its course: TVA to let river dilute residual Kingston ash

photo Coal ash from a 40-acre pond flows into the Emory River after a retention wall collapsed Dec. 22, 2008 at the Kingston Fossil Plant.

A TVA decision to leave 500,000 cubic yards of spilled coal ash in the Clinch and Emory rivers near Kingston, Tenn., is drawing mixed reactions.

"Five hundred cubic yards is enough coal ash to fill a football field almost 94 feet high from end zone to end zone," said Donna Lisenby, the Watauga Riverkeeper who helped bring attention to the Kingston ash spill when an earthen landfill dam collapsed on Dec. 22, 2008, and dumped 5.2 million cubic yards of wet coal ash over 400 acres of then-residential farm land and the Emory River.

"Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, chromium and many other toxic pollutants. Leaving that much ash in the river system to combine with all the other legacy pollutants just increases the total pollutant load," Lisenby said.

TVA released the plan in an "action memorandum" posted this week on its website and the Administrative Record for the Kingston Ash Recovery Project.

The plan, called "Monitored Natural Recovery" essentially relies on the old saying: Dilution is the solution to pollution.

"The Tennessee Valley Authority will rely on natural river processes and long-term monitoring to address residual ash," said TVA spokesman Scott Brooks in a TVA news release.

The plan was one of three alternatives proposed in the federal utility's engineering evaluation and cost analysis completed in August and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

"Monitored natural recovery avoids disturbing legacy contaminants from past U.S. Department of Energy projects in the river system, provides the best balance with respect to effectiveness and implementation, and is the most cost-effective option for consumers of TVA power," states the TVA report.

Not all environmental groups oppose the plan.

Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices and a water quality specialist, said his environmental organization is reviewing the lengthy document TVA filed.

"It is certainly in the realm of possibility that this [monitoring as nature takes its course] is the best way: There's always the possibility of making things worse while trying to make them better," he said.

"What we are concerned about is how they are measuring success. We want to look at their numbers and goals," he said.