Scenes From TVA's Kingston Ash-Spill Disaster—One Year Later

Phyllis Ellis and Sheila Steelman live just behind Swan Pond Baptist Church, a quaint red-brick building with a small fenced-in cemetery just a stone’s throw away from the Kingston Steam Plant. Across the road, the plant’s two tallest stacks loom high behind the treeline. Below them, a giant mass of coal proffers itself before the burners, looking neglected in its black abundance. Below the coal, open railcars lined with industrial-grade plastic—burrito liners, they’re called—rest somnolently with their 100-ton helping of grainy coal ash in their bellies, waiting to take it hundreds of miles away.

Today, the two middle-aged women cruise in Ellis’ navy blue Tahoe on Swan Pond Road, which winds around the plant’s western edge, then pull into a driveway overlooking the cleanup site. From here they watch earth-movers twisting, lifting, and pushing piles of gray-black sludge from one place to another in a way that looks at once purposed and random. It’s okay to stop here, Ellis says, it’s not TVA property. The Tahoe’s engine is left running so the outside cold doesn’t seep in.

“This is one of the few that haven’t sold,” Steelman says of the neighbor who owns the drive.

“There’s what? Seven who haven’t sold?” Ellis asks Steelman, counting off the neighbors left of the 35 to 40 houses between here and the entrance. TVA staff, who distribute information to the residents’ doors, put that number slightly higher—they say there are 12 left here on Swan Pond Road, and only one left on Lakeshore Drive. Most of those homes are empty, but some are occupied by TVA employees working on the cleanup. Many have laminated white placards fixed to their front doors that read, “NOTICE: THIS BUILDING IS OWNED BY U.S.-TVA.”

Ellis is a small woman with short, curly brown hair and dressed in a gray fur coat and brown leather gloves. She and her husband live on 26 acres of “dirt” up the hill, land that’s been in her family for nearly 100 years. A nearby road is named for her mother’s side. Her grandfather drowned in the water that used to stand where the railcars, now full of ash, sit.

“The reason that we haven’t sold and [this neighbor] hasn’t sold is because what they offer you for your property is not enough for you to go a buy something else like you have here,” Ellis explains. She says TVA offered her less than half the amount she reasons the property was worth before the spill.

Neither Ellis nor Steelman’s properties were among the 45 damaged by the massive wave of water and ash during the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2008. Their homes sit to the west of the plant, while the flood from the failed dredge cell traveled mostly to the north and east, onto Swan Pond Circle Road, Lakeshore Drive, and out into the river. That night, Steelman, who’s taller than her friend Phyllis and has bushy red hair, was awakened by a crashing sound.

“It was like, ‘Wwwhmm!’” She attempts to replicate a guttural noise but quickly gives up. Before she went to sleep that night, Steelman had buried her brother in the cemetery beside the church. In that cemetery also rests one of her twin daughters, killed four years ago at the age of 12 by a drunk driver.

Even though they weren’t among those hit by the 2.5 million cubic yards of ash that spoiled some 300 acres of land, Ellis and Steelman say the ash spill has irrevocably changed their lives. Few neighbors remain. Work carrying into the night keeps them up. They say ash from the cleanup blows into their homes, dirtying their linens and causing respiratory problems for their spouses and children. TVA says EPA tested the ladies’ homes and found no ash (the EPA did not return calls in time for publication).

“It’s in my bed. You hit it, it’s out,” Steelman says. TVA’s oft-repeated mantra is to make this place “as good or better than it was,” yet that seems an unreasonable goal in these women’s eyes.

“It’s ruined our neighborhood,” Steelman says, her words tumbling out almost before she can reach for the next one. “It’s like—it’s like a black plague out here.”

“It’ll never the be same because we’ll never have the same neighbors. We’ll never have the same trust,” Ellis says.

She then points to a grassy hill above the cleanup site. “You see where that mound is, right there?” Ellis asks. “That used to be a lake, or an inlet from the lake. This community got its name, Swan Pond, because there were swans in that inlet. There used to be baptism out there; they used to swim. There was a dike out here people used to fish off of. Well, then you learn that TVA has been putting ash out there since the ’50s.”

As the year has passed and the cleanup has progressed, Ellis’ feelings have steadily worsened. “It has gone beyond frustration. It has gone to depression. You know, you don’t want to deal with it anymore,” she says.

Asked whether they’ll live here a year from now, Ellis and Steelman emphatically reply that they hope not.

Asked whether she believes people outside this area still care about the spill a year on, Ellis says, “I feel that people are beginning to be tired of hearing about it.”

IF YOU BUILD IT

From the wooden observation deck northwest of the plant that overlooks the cleanup, light rain falls on Dennis Yankee’s tan Carhartt jacket. TVA’s environmental manager prefers to forego an umbrella, citing Army tradition.

“This is the dredge cell that failed,” Yankee says, looking to the same hill Ellis pointed out from the road—a giant, uneven mound with splotches of green, brown, and black, terraced by dirt roads at the perimeter.

“So when it failed, it failed outward and it also failed this way,” Yankee says, motioning first towards the river beyond the hill, then towards the road just below the observation deck. “The majority moved north and east into the embayment, up the sloughs, into the river, and some down the river.”

Last week, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report announcing the spill released 140,000 pounds of arsenic, a known carcinogen, into the river, more than twice the amount released into U.S. waterways by all U.S. power plants in 2007.

To Yankee’s right, just north of the plant, is a giant square of black and gray sludge, shaped with miniature mountains, valleys, and ridges, and framed by train tracks on two sides. Inside the square, a truck drives alongside a ridge of ash, its hose spraying an unnatural bluish-green liquid sealant to prevent the ash from blowing around.

The square’s still known as the “ball field” for the baseball diamond and soccer fields it housed before the spill. Now it’s the tail-end of the cleanup operation.

Starting in the Emory river, two dredges—essentially movable ladders fixed with long pipes, at the end of which are mechanical mouths of metal teeth that rotate (Yankee says they look “scary, like something out of a horror movie”)—cut into the soil-ash material and suck it up like a giant straw. The mixture, 80 percent water, then travels through the pipes to a series of ditches, where it’s allowed to settle, and is then moved across the ball field in order to dry it out from about 50 percent moisture content to 25 percent, a process that typically takes a couple of days.

On the western end of the ball field of ash, railcars line up and await their 100-ton deposit of ash. To be transported by train, ash can only contain around 25-30 percent water because, like concrete, vibration causes water to it rise through the ash to the surface. If it contains more than 30 percent water, Yankee says, the water will leak from the cars, something TVA wants to avoid. As a precaution against leakage, in addition to plastic liners cinched with bungee cord, an absorbent, much like the one found in diapers, is added to the cars.

The cars are then joined together in groups of 20 to 25 into a chain of 106, give or take, and then those 10,000 tons are driven off to the Arrowhead landfill, in Perry County, Ala. Recently one county commissioner there called the ash a “godsend.”

When it’s raining, like it is today, and like it has done much of this year, the loading is slowed. “It brings a lot of our operations to a halt,” Yankee says. “It gets so wet you that can’t move the material, you can’t load it.”

But Yankee says a rainy winter and spring shouldn’t alter the goal TVA has set out: to complete river dredging—the “time-critical” portion, in EPA parlance (because of the increased risk of flooding from the elevated river)—by May of 2010. Even if they can’t load the ash as quickly, they have room to store the ash on site as it comes out.

The earth movers, dredgers, railcars, permits, and round-the-clock manpower come with a price tag of between $933 million and $1.2 billion dollars, the burden of which will be passed to rate payers. Those figures don’t include lawsuits, fines, or the cost of future storage.

One key question that remains for Yankee and for TVA in this process is, once completed, how will it prove the ash has been removed from the river? How will they determine what’s ash and what’s clean?

“You get a river like this, it’s very flashy,” Yankee says. “It comes off the Cumberland Plateau. You get big flows; you get a lot of sand and sediment; you get a lot of mixing. And you get what we call ‘smash’—sediment and ash. At what point is it not ash anymore? Ideally you would have something like toxicity to judge, but we don’t have toxicity in the ash by itself. We don’t have an answer for that yet.”

When they do find an answer and the river work is complete, the land remediation—about 2.5 million cubic yards of “non-critical” ash—will still remain. That’s expected to take three to four years, and TVA spokeswoman Katie Kline says they plan to incorporate the community as much as possible into those plans.

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE

In a YouTube video posted in late October, Gary Topmiller, who lives directly across from the cleanup site on the Emory River, and who was featured in a 60 Minutes report on the spill, narrates photos he’s taken over the last few months. “This is some of the dead animals we found floated up on the banks of our river,” Topmiller says as pictures of discolored and lifeless fish, birds, an opossum, and a squirrel cycle through. “There’s dead animals all over the place out here, and TVA chooses not to address the problem.”

In the year since the spill, Dr. Shea Tuberty, an ecotoxicologist at Appalachian State University, has collected bass and catfish above the spill site like the ones in Topmiller’s video. “It was amazing that these fish were still alive—they had eroded gills and eroded fins,” he says. “They were emaciated: basically, they were half the weight of fish we caught in control sites.”

As disturbing as these images are, these fish were likely trapped in the immediate vicinity of the spill, and so do not represent Tuberty’s greatest concerns about the spill’s impact. “It’s an occasional fish at most, so I wouldn’t use that as a standard to compare the ecosystem against,” Tuberty says.

The real issue to watch for, in his opinion, is the long-term absorption of metals found in the ash—arsenic, lead, chromium, and selenium—up the food chain. Just a year out, it’s still too early to know what the effects might be, but those impacts could begin showing up in fish and animal populations in the next year.

Some questions have already emerged. In fish specimens collected just 10 days after the spill, intended to serve as background samples with which to compare post-spill specimens, Tuberty found elevated levels of selenium. This metal can accumulate in fish ovaries and testes, causing deformities in offspring, and if concentrations are high enough, trigger a large-scale die-off of a species. But it usually takes around two weeks for fish to absorb selenium under lab conditions, and during winter months, in a river, could take up to a month. This led Tuberty to conclude there was selenium exposure from the plant before the Dec. 22 spill took place.

Further research, including core samples taken from river sediment and archived aerial photos from the Department of Defense, confirmed layers of ash dating back to the 1950s, when coal ash was pumped directly into the Emory River, and in the decades since.

But TVA limnologist Tyler Baker says nobody knows what the background levels should have been, and that there isn’t enough data to say conclusively that the selenium found in these fish came from the release of ash from the Kingston plant.

“By the letter of the law, they’re right—because we don’t know exactly where it comes from,” Tuberty says. But TVA’s explanation—that the selenium may have come from aerial deposition (i.e. another plant) rather than from the plant less than a mile away—doesn’t hold water for him. “It still comes from the burning of coal. Now, the ash in the river is a much more tangible source—we’ve proven it’s been there for 50 years. When are you just going to get on board and admit that this is an issue?”

At any rate, Baker says “based on the information and all the studies we read, these concentrations aren’t at levels of great concern.” And an EPA report on selenium released in August placed samples taken thus far within the acceptable range: “Selenium concentrations in surface water results from both TDEC and TVA suggest that no adverse ecological impacts in the river systems have occurred at this time.... The limited data set of [selenium] concentration in fish muscle tissue does not support the concept that the spill and subsequent dredging have significantly elevated levels of [selenium] in the tissues of fish to levels that pose a risk to aquatic life. However, the paucity of data provided is insufficient to conclusively rule out this possibility with an adequate level of certainty.”

Still another possibility that muddies this water: If there were elevated levels of selenium from ash deposits before the spill, might the fish have developed immunity to its effects through natural selection, and thus avoid a die-off? Time and research are needed to answer this and other questions.

Fortunately, there’s no lack of interest from the scientific community. During the last week of November, North America’s largest annual gathering of toxicology researchers, the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, was held in New Orleans. At the conference (which Tuberty and Baker both attended), there were a number of posters dedicated specifically to the coal ash spill. Whereas most studies have previously only looked at a spill’s effect on a closed system (lakes and ponds), Tuberty says Kingston has provided a unique opportunity to test one of toxicology’s great paradigms: that the solution to pollution is dilution.

“This event has basically offered up a once-in-a-lifetime, worst-case scenario field toxicity test that nobody would have been given approval to do on their own,” Tuberty says. “So if you want to look at the bright side, it’s going to be that we’re going to see what the worst-case scenario really is in a river system.”

Both Baker and Tuberty are awaiting results from summer tests to come in.

CLEANING UP THE REST

When residents, government officials, and environmental experts today are asked what they make of TVA’s efforts in the year since the spill, a dichotomy quickly emerges: regarding the cleanup itself, many say TVA has performed remarkably well, especially after the EPA began oversight in May.

“As far as getting the ash out of the river, as far as moving forward, I think they’re doing a great job,” says Randy Ellis, who serves as vice-president of the Community Advisory Group for Roane County, a liaison between community members and the agencies tasked with the cleanup: TVA, the EPA, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. He’s also the son of Phyllis Ellis, one of the women living behind the ash plant.

“Now on a scale of one to 10, on how TVA’s dealt with communications and reparations with the community and the county, I’d have to rate that as a two,” Ellis adds. He cites a “take it or leave it” approach to legal settlements, as well as a feeling that TVA doesn’t do enough to inform residents of its plans. For example, in September, the plant tested a high-sulfur coal that caused rust to rain down upon area homes, but failed to warn residents in advance. Kline, of TVA’s cleanup operations, calls this a mistake and says they’re attempting to improve communication with residents.

But it’s an uphill battle. “There is no trust in the TVA,” Ellis says.

The revelations contained in TVA Inspector General Richard Moore’s report, released in July, were particularly damning, laying much of the blame for the spill squarely on the shoulders of TVA’s management and culture.

“We find that TVA made no effort to publicly disclose what management practices may have contributed to the Kingston spill,” the report read. “TVA has urged everyone just to ‘move forward’ without further examination of what responsibility TVA management may have had for the disaster.”

It continued, “TVA management handled the root cause analysis in a manner that avoided transparency and accountability in favor of preserving a litigation strategy. TVA elected not to publicly disclose management practices that may have contributed to the Kingston Spill.”

Adding to this feeling of mistrust, at least for Ellis, was TVA’s retention of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, the Kansas City law firm best known for litigating for decades on behalf of Philip Morris, now Altria Group, and other tobacco companies, against claims of liability for cancer. There are currently 18 lawsuits before TVA, a number that has spiked in recent weeks as the one-year window for filing personal injury suits draws near. After it closes, on Dec. 22, a two-year period will remain open for filing property-damage suits.

TVA is attempting to have those suits thrown out under a provision known as a “discretionary function exemption,” which prevents the federal government from being sued for planning and executing policy. The judge’s decision is pending, but this move, coupled with the IG report and the retention of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, highlight the complications that arise from TVA’s schizophrenic identity as a federally owned private utility.

Voluntarily stepping into this mess is Steve McCracken, who took over as head of the cleanup for TVA in September. Arriving from the Department of Energy in Oak Ridge, where he would have become eligible for retirement last week, McCracken has had a long career in industrial cleanup.

“Technically, the work is very similar,” McCracken says of his new job. “As far as the other side of the equation—in other words, the anger people have experienced because of this, that’s very typical. You have this spill that’s occurred. What grows from that is distrust and anger and that’s very typical everywhere I’ve been. And what I can tell you is that it takes time to regain that trust.”

McCracken says he believes TVA’s doing what it needs to and hopes to improve relations with residents. “I think we are approaching the next several years in the way that we should, and that is to communicate openly and often about what we’re doing and what we’re planning to do. And with all that, there’s no doubt in my mind that within three years, four years, we’ll be in a place that meets people’s expectations.

“Our commitment is to clean up this spill, and make it as good or better than it was,” McCracken says.

Still, some wonder whether TVA isn’t being unrealistic.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes that has been made in this has been that TVA set expectations way high,” says Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. “One of their first messages was ‘We will make you whole and we will make you happy.’ I remember hearing that and thinking, ‘Oh, they’ve made a mistake, because that is a huge promise that really cannot be fulfilled.’”

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

In the city of Kingston, no ash was spilled. The steam plant’s stacks, from which the ash was born and which always sit on its northern horizon, are not even within city limits. Yet all over the country and world, the city’s name is synonymous with the largest industrial spill in the nation’s history.

“On December 22 of last year, there was a very loud bell rung, and you can’t unring that bell,” says Kingston Mayor Troy Beets, who made national headlines last year when he drank a glass of tap water before members of the press in order to prove the safety of the city’s water supply.

TVA has notably and publicly attempted to make amends with Kingston and Roane County. Beets and the city requested and received $5 million to repair its sewer system—approximately the city’s operating budget for a year—from the $43 million contributed by TVA to local governments for reparations for the spill. Beets and the Roane County Commission, on which Beets also serves, asked for $32 million to replace its aging school system’s infrastructure, so $32 million went to that.

“Is it enough? I don’t know,” Beets says, plainly. “Is it too much? I don’t know.

“They rang a bell, and now the only way we can get over that is to ring positive bells.

“Will we ever escape the Kingston ash spill? I don’t think so.”

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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