On a gray, dreary Monday afternoon in Kingston, two men are standing in a gas station talking about huge amounts of money.
"They're saying it's gonna get up to over $100 million," says one.
"Wow," says the other, simply, "Wow" being the only appropriate response anyone can ever think of to "over $100 million."
Certainly everyone knows what these two guys are talking about, given where they are. The gas station is on a stretch of Kingston highway that the city fathers apparently decided was too important for just one name. And just a half-mile or so down Roane State Highway/Broadway of America/TN-70/Rockwood/Race Street is TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, recently the site of a major ecological disaster when, on Dec. 22, the 40-acre containment pond next to the coal-burning power plant burst open, spilling a billion gallons of coal ash.
It's going to be an expensive mistake.
TVA, after all, has had 190 workers—about 150 employees and 40 contractors-—at the cleanup site 24 hours a day. And they're saying that even at that rate, it could take months, or even years, to get the area back to normal. Then there are the inevitable lawsuits. Kingston landowners Jot and Brenda Raymond already filed suit for $165 million after sludge spilled into their North Lake Estates development. Plus, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) has delivered two notices of intent to file suit against the energy authority, one for violations of the Clean Water Act and the other for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Clean Water Act violations alone could cost the utility up to $32,000 per day.
It's been on everybody's minds for weeks now: the Kingston disaster, its environmental consequences, the costs and resources it will take to clean it up.
That must be what these guys in the gas station are talking about, right?
"If I get that money, I'll tell everybody what they can kiss," says the first man, filling out a Tennessee Powerball ticket. This week's estimated jackpot is $105 million.
Maybe the conversation surrounding the spill, so vitriolic and distrustful at first, has quieted down a bit. And maybe life is starting to approach normal here again. At least that's what Roane County Emergency Management Director Howie Rose, the man on the ground fielding Roane residents' complaints and concerns, seemed to imply at a press briefing last week, just after TVA, EPA, and county officials announced that tests at the Kingston water intake area indicated federally acceptable levels of harmful materials, and that levels of airborne particulates were well within the normal range.
"People want to know, you know, ‘Howie, are you making sure that everybody's doing what they're supposed to over there?' And I tell them, I don't have to make sure. They're doing it on their own," Rose said, criticizing "special interest groups" for putting out "misinformation." "The resounding question from people in the county is, ‘All this information is out there, and I don't know what to believe.' Well, I'm telling you what to believe."
But it seems that not everybody is willing to leave it at that, least of all those "special interest groups."
What to Believe
"The TVA is treating this like a public relations problem," says Chris Irwin, lawyer for United Mountain Defense, one of the environmental watchdog groups that has been monitoring the situation since it began in late December.
But TVA spokesperson Barbara Martucci takes issue with that characterization. "I completely disagree with that. TVA is taking this very seriously," she says. "We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of the residents 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
But Irwin thinks that taking it seriously should include allowing independent analysis of the area's water, soil, and air, and he says that TVA police have prevented that.
"TVA hassles us every chance they get," Irwin says of their efforts to conduct their own analysis. "Typically, [UMD volunteers] get grabbed once a day. They sit on the side of the road for 45 minutes."
He says in one instance a UMD volunteer was taking samples from a residence with the property owner's permission when he was roadblocked by TVA officers.
"The Roane County police came, and they've been pretty professional compared to the TVA police. They said, ‘No, he can go ahead and go,'" Irwin says.
But Martucci says that TVA police action has been strictly cautionary.
"If anyone's been detained, it's only been to ensure their own safety," she says. "The only people who are allowed behind our blockades are TVA employees and contractors or anyone being escorted by them."
One of the UMD's first findings, according to a Jan. 2 press release, was that arsenic levels in the Emory River revealed close to 300 times the allowable amounts of arsenic, 21 times the allowable amounts of lead, and four times the allowable amounts of thallium, all of which led UMD to bring hundreds of gallons of bottled water into the town in the first four days following the disaster.
EPA tests have confirmed examples of elevated arsenic levels in the days following the spill, enough to justify an EPA "action response," but EPA representatives have said that water treatment filters it out. In addition, all Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation tests on private wells—22 as of this writing—have come within safe standards.
One possible reason for the discrepancy, says Dr. Carol Babyak, could just be the complex nature of the material itself. Babyak, a professor of chemistry at Appalachian State University, is one of the scientists who conducted tests for the UMD.
"It's just not what we call a homogeneous solution yet. Solids are going to be different day to day," she says. "You have to factor in things like flow and rainfall. It's still very early, and it's a very complex thing that's happened."
As for the ash from the inside the spill site itself, the EPA has also confirmed elevated arsenic, but not enough to be considered hazardous unless it is ingested.
Irwin says the group will be releasing its own data on ash from the interior spill area this week.
"My preference, to be completely honest, is that our data matches their data," says Irwin.
"We have not heard back from the TVA yet," about its two potential lawsuits, says SACE's attorney Gary Davis. Stephen Smith, SACE director, will testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about the TVA coal disaster on Thursday as part of an official TVA oversight inquiry. Davis says that he will be given five minutes for a statement.
It's not prepared yet, Davis says, but he believes Smith will testify that the TDEC did not properly monitor toxic output from the Kingston plant in the years leading up to the spill. He's also going to push for better ash storage facilities for the utility.
But one of the SACE's major immediate goals in its upcoming testimony and its lawsuit is to ensure that TVA institutes (and pays for) medical monitoring for nearby residents. "That's one of things that's extremely important to the community that we wish they would respond to," says Davis.
TVA officials have not responded either way about whether it will offer medical monitoring. Martucci could not comment on it by press time.
Medical monitoring could include hair, nail, and urinalysis for presence of heavy metals.
"We need to start a baseline for monitoring how people's bodies are accumulating and responding to these metals over time," he says.
Last weekend, the UMD held a community meeting to address just this issue.
"We had chairs for about 170," says Irwin. "220 people came."
The group, says Irwin, is going to be conducting its own urinalysis studies, thanks to a nearby lab that's offered to do them cheap. (Irwin says he won't give the name of the lab until results begin to come in.) Irwin says about 50 people have signed up so far.
They'll cost about $500 each. The group is seeking donations to help uninsured residents pay, but they are pushing TVA to pick up the tab.
"We're going around sparechanging every non-profit around," Irwin says. "Some of these people have lost all their property value. We don't want to say, ‘Okay, here's another $500 burden.' The question is, why should a little non-profit have to come up with the money to pay for baseline health testing for people who've been exposed to TVA's disaster?"