Tennessee: Community awaits answers

Tennessee: Community awaits answers

January 4th, 2009 by Pam Sohn in News

Staff Photo by Patrick Smith<br> Remains of a coal ash spill, which blanketed more than 300 acres, surround the TVA power plant. 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 low lying properties.

Staff Photo by Patrick Smith<br> Remains of a coal...

Kingston Fossil Plant

* Location: Near Kingston, Tenn., at the confluence of the Emory and Clinch rivers 115 miles upstream of Chattanooga.

* History: Built from 1951 to 1955, the plant has stored fly ash in ash ponds and dredge cells just north of the plant since 1958.

* Capacity: 1,456 megawatts from nine boilers, or enough to supply the electricity demand for 670,000 homes in the Tennessee Valley. Kingston is the fourth-biggest of TVA's 11 coal plants.

* Coal burn: The plant burns about 14,000 tons of coal each day, or more than 5 million tons a year

* Ash production: The plant generates about 500,000 tons of fly and bottom ash a year.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

Kingston toxic releases to landfills during 2007

* Total: 2,265,794 pounds

* Arsenic compounds: 44,782 pounds

* Barium compounds: 1.4 million pounds

* Lead compounds: 49,716 pounds

* Manganese compounds: 142,790 pounds

* Mercury compounds: 235 pounds

* Nickel compounds: 72,357

* Selenium compounds: 8,268

Source: TVA Toxic Release Inventory, 2007

Major coal ash spills

* On Dec. 22, 2008, TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant spilled 1.1 billion gallons from a dredge cell containing coal ash. The fly ash and coal residue leaked into the Emory and Clinch rivers, which flow into the Tennessee River.

* On Aug. 23-27, 2005, a 40-acre ash pond breached at PPL Corp.'s Martins Creek Power Plant, spilling about 100 million gallons of contaminated water and fly ash. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection levied a $1.5 million civil penalty for the spill and PPL said it spent $37 million on cleanup costs.

* In July 2002, a four-acre sinkhole in Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Bowen's ash pond sent 2.25 million gallons of ash and water into Euharlee Creek, an Etowah River tributary. The state fined Georgia Power $31,250 for the spill.

* On June 10-13, 1967, a waste-settling pond at Appalachian Power Co.'s Carbo power plant leaked about 130 million gallons of fly ash sludge into Dump's Creek, which flows into the Clinch River. State agencies estimate the spill killed 162,000 fish in Virginia and 54,600 fish downstream in Tennessee.

Sources: Tennessee Valley Authority, Environmental Protection Agency, study by Roanoke College professors Robert Jenkins and Noel Burkhead for the American Fisheries Society

HARRIMAN, Tenn. - Crystell Flinn wasn't home when a tsunami of fly ash sludge lifted her house from the shore of the Emory River, shoved it across Swan Pond Road Circle and carried it with frightening cracks and pops into a ridge and stand of trees.

Her husband rode the pitching house until it became wedged on higher ground. What she saw when she got home to find him traumatized but safe will never leave her mind, she said.

"I'm still in shock. There used to a river here," Mrs. Flinn said, pointing to a sludge pit stretching from her crumpled house to the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant smokestacks a mile and a quarter away.

"This was family property," she said. "I inherited it, and I loved it. It can never be the same."

Two weeks after the 65-foot, TVA-owned earthen dam ruptured and spilled more than 1 billion gallons of puddinglike sludge over 300 acres of land and water, residents and officials continue to grapple with the scope of the disaster. The sludge wall swamped residential lakefront property, swallowed farmland and killed fish.

TVA's CEO and president, Tom Kilgore, has acknowledged that the scenery where the Emory River flows into the Clinch River likely will never be the same, but he has pledged to make "whole" the 42 families and the landscape affected by the sludgy fly ash. Mr. Kilgore said TVA is committed to restoring the area, but he has not provided a timetable or cost estimate for the work.

On Friday, TVA executives, faced with public charges of delaying information, blamed a "holiday bottleneck" for the utility's inability to tell people whether the water is contaminated. The spill occurred four miles upstream from the confluence of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers.

TVA spokeswoman Susan Lauver said the utility has contracted with state-certified labs to provide test results "more quickly."

The agency's reassurances have not satisfied many residents, environmental groups and officials, many of whom have expressed distrust of TVA and questioned whether real cleanup is possible.

Brant Williams, a Kingston City Council member, said TVA also contributed to a delay in the city's own water testing.

He said city-contracted labs required a week to report sample findings, so TVA offered to take the city samples to a lab for a 24-hour turnaround. Six days later, Mr. Williams said, the city still has no results. He said when city officials called the lab, officials there said they would not release the results because TVA is paying for the testing.

Mr. Williams also was angered by water samples that show high levels of toxic metals. Environmental advocacy group United Mountain Defense announced Friday that its independent water samples show heavy and toxic metal concentrations at two to 300 times above drinking water standards. The group's attorney, Chris Irwin, of Knoxville, said he does not understand why a small environmental group could get samples and make results known to the public, but TVA could not.

"The truth of what is in that sludge is going to come out," he said. "If TVA held data back, someone needs to be held accountable."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also released its water samples Friday. Those also show higher-than-standard readings, including levels of arsenic 149 times above the standard and levels of lead that are five times greater than acceptable ranges.

The metals have been linked with cancer and other health problems. EPA spokeswoman Laura Niles said water treatment processes filter out such metals.

Harriman residents Sandy and Terry Gupton have resorted to taking their own water samples in pastures where they are afraid now to keep their herd of registered beef cattle. TVA decided only to test cleaner-looking water in their driveway, the couple said.

In a news conference on New Year's Eve at the Roane County Emergency Management office, Gov. Phil Bredesen said he ordered the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to make its own immediate inspections of TVA ash impoundments at all seven of the agency's coal plants in the state.

On Friday evening, TVA said on its Web site - where the EPA water data was released - that it is awaiting "additional results" from samples and will update the information.

The Breach

The sludge slide occurred Dec. 22 and its exact cause is still unknown, according to TVA officials, who acknowledge piling 500,000 tons of fly and bottom ash each year into three dredge/landfill "cells" of the massive wet fly ash impoundment that grew for 50 years above the Emory River.

After 8.83 inches of rain in three weeks, the earthen berm retaining walls of the landfill gave way, allowing five decades of fly and bottom ash to ooze over the river and land below.

TVA's Mr. Kilgore told Kingston and Harriman residents last week that the dam was inspected yearly, most recently in October. But the report on that inspection has not been made yet, Mr. Kilgore said.

"No one wants to know more than me," he told residents clamoring for a "what happened" answer.

Previous inspections also have shown problems, Mr. Kilgore said, but those problems had been fixed.

TVA officials this week acknowledged that the remaining soft sludge in the intact portions of the landfill - much the consistency of wet sand on a beach at wave's edge - still is moving.

Gov. Bredesen told reporters Wednesday that agency officials had assured him the movement is "not significant."

Looking for cleanup

In addition to questions about TVA's response to water quality, residents also are wondering how the sludge will affect them and their community, environmentally and economically.

Mr. Williams is worried the damage can never be mitigated completely.

"They can't clean it up. They can contain it," the council member said.

"We've already lost one six-figure (proposed) development," he said. "Would you even consider moving to Kingston after reading about this and the potential danger? ... Is Watts Bar where you're going to take your kids this summer for camping and swimming? Probably not."

In the first days, TVA claimed the ash was "inert," but in the wake of state and federal health advisories, utility officials have stopped using the word "inert."

Meanwhile, state, environmental and TVA officials have said air concerns may be more urgent than water worries.

When the sludge and slurries dry, the fly ash - the byproduct of burning coal that normally is caught in air pollution scrubber processes - will be free to blow in the wind. The airborne ash, along with the metals and chemical compounds in it, can cause immediate respiratory and long-term problems, health and environmental officials have said.

TVA Senior Vice President Anda Ray said most of the major compounds in fly ash are materials similar to sand. Some of it is recycled for use in Portland cement, he said. About 95 percent of the ash is made up of silicon, aluminum, iron and calcium in their oxide forms, she said, but the fly ash also contains the heavy metal residue from coal.

According to TVA reports for the annual Toxics Release Inventory, an EPA-maintained database, the agency disposes of more than 2.2 million pounds a year of toxic materials into the onsite landfill.

Those toxic materials include:

* 44,782 pounds of arsenic compounds

* 235 pounds of mercury compounds

* 8,268 pounds of selenium compounds

* 49,716 pounds of lead compounds.

On Friday, the agency announced it would begin this weekend to sprinkle water on some areas at the spill site and spread grass seed to minimize possible dust and erosion. The aim is to keep the sludge damp and eventually grow a temporary cover over the ash.

Aided by frequent rains over the past two weeks, the fly ash has not shown much evidence of becoming airborne, and TVA's air sampling has not shown particulate pollution, according to Alan Nye with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, TVA's air sampling contractor from Little Rock, Ark.

Mr. Nye said his company has not been asked to monitor for toxics or volatile organic compounds commonly found in coal-burning byproducts.

Community response

Already one Kingston business has announced it likely will leave the community because of the spill.

While Charlotte, N.C., environmental cleanup contract crews from Hepaco worked to contain ash residue, a part owner of the Watts Bar Belle was facing one of the boat's busiest party seasons - New Year's.

The vessel, a dinner and cruise boat, was "dead in the water," Francie Harkenrider said last week.

"We don't dare crank up the engines," because impellers could suck ash debris into the boat's massive diesel engines and generator, she said.

Ms. Harkenrider said the boat may have to move away from Kingston, where it has been docked for several years at 58 Landing, a city park on the Clinch River several miles downstream of the spill and less than a mile from where the Clinch empties into the Tennessee River.

Realtors said they are concerned about their property values.

Garvin Morris, an Oak Ridge National Laboratories retiree, moved to an Emory River shorefront property a few years ago because he could go right outside his door and go fishing every day.

"That won't happen now," he said, shaking his head and looking across the street to a waterless riverbed of muddy ash. "And now I can't sell the house."

TVA is facing one $165 million civil lawsuit from similar landowners affected by the spill, and there are prospects of several more civil actions.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy served notice to TVA last week of its intent to sue the agency under both the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for the health and environmental impacts caused by the coal ash release.

The group is asking a court to order TVA to clean up the area affected by the spill, release all air, water and soil tests as they are available, and conduct long-term monitoring of the region for possible long-term problems to aquatic and human life.

Mr. Smith accused TVA of withholding information by not releasing data the agency has on the content of the fly ash and trying to minimize the seriousness of the potential hazard of fly ash.

"These actions have led to a loss of confidence in the utility's decisions, which currently have the potential to risk human health," Mr. Smith said.

The spill also is generating health concerns in communities downstream.

Sheila Brock, a Chattanooga mother who grew up breathing fly ash from coal stacks in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb, came to TVA's Chattanooga power headquarters last week to protest the spill and the agency's cleanup effort. She said she is worried Chattanooga's water supply may be tainted from the spill, although Tennessee-American Water Co. officials said their regular testing has shown no problems so far.

"If it killed the fish, what's it going to do to you?" she asked.