Life Among the Ashes

How East Tennessee's biggest environmental disaster upturned lives, from homeowners to activists to TVA employees

Erin Brockovich, CNN, and all the rest of the national media circus may have come and gone from the city of Harriman (population 6,744 as of the 2000 census). Still, the dust hasn't entirely cleared. As of this writing, and doubtless many subsequent writings, there's still a big pile of it sitting on the town. Driving past the corner of Swan Pond Road and Swan Pond Circle Road, you still see piles of black sludge, now covered with hay, rising up 20 feet from what used to be the Emory River and surrounding fields. If not for the uprooted or, in some cases, still-standing-but-sludge-covered trees everywhere, the scene would be reminiscent of a Martian terrain.

There are also a bunch of houses in the middle of it, some of them destroyed in the first hours of the ash release, others severely damaged. Their unfortunate owners have mostly been staying in area hotels, facing the daunting process of piecing their lives back together. But many others, people who were lucky enough to come out with houses completely intact, are still living amidst the mess. And it's been a long, stressful month for them. On Dec. 22, they were living on a quiet stretch of road in the country, next to a community fishing hole. As of Dec. 23 and thereafter, they've been coexisting with the noise of workers and passing ash-filled dump trucks 24 hours a day. TVA has stadium lights set up along the entire length of the spill area, forcing them to close their blinds at night so they can get some sleep. Many are still worried about their drinking water, not entirely confident in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's assurances that the levels of arsenic, beryllium, and other toxic heavy metals, after treatment, are within safety standards for human consumption.

It's a confusing mess. But at this point, a month into it, one thing seems to be sure: For the people who live in the Swan Pond area, and for the people of the whole town, life is not going to return to normal very soon—or, many believe, ever again.

The Young Professionals: Ron and Joanie Smith

Brockovich famously wrote on the Huffington Post that the Harriman/Kingston area is "off the beaten path," a sentiment that raised some blogospheric ire. It is, as one Roane County blogger points out, along a major freeway and it's a short drive from East Tennessee's largest shopping center, Turkey Creek.

But getting to Ron and Joanie Smiths' house on Swan Pond Circle—just beyond the Harriman city limits—requires a nearly 10-minute drive from any major highway onto winding Highland Drive, which, from turn to turn, can't seem to decide if it's a robust paved two-laner or a gravel pathway barely wide enough for one car. If the area in general isn't off the beaten path, the Smiths' particular corner of it certainly is. Read More

The Farmer: Terry Gupton

"You hear that?" asks Terry Gupton, looking up in the sky at a TVA helicopter. "That's all you could hear the first couple of days. It was like a war zone here."

Gupton lives within shouting distance from the Smith home, but his life seems like a stark rural counterpoint to their near-suburban existence. Gupton and his wife Sandra run a 250-acre cattle farm on Swan Pond Circle, about 25 acres of which is now covered in sludge.

Gupton looks every bit the East Tennessee small-time farmer. He's a big, 62-year-old man. Imagine a cross between W.C. Fields and Jimmy Carter, throw in a pair of tan Carhartt overalls and a winter hat, and you just about have him. Read More

The Mayor: Chris Mason

"I've been all over the world. I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. There's nothing as beautiful as my home." This is a heartwarming, but perhaps obligatory, thing for Harriman Mayor Chris Mason to say, especially to the press. On the other hand, he has lived there all his life, save a few years while getting his degree from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. He's a local business owner—running an AT&T wireless franchise—and he did decide to run for mayor, and won. Plus, he's frank in his criticism of TVA, even though it's one of the town's largest employers. Read More

The Activist: Chris Irwin

Chris Irwin talks like a criminal defense lawyer. He speaks clearly and quickly, and just a bit louder than is strictly necessary, like he's trying to win you over. And, of course, he talks like a criminal defense lawyer because that's his day job.

"Yep. Guns and drugs, that's me," he says. Read More

The TVA Employee: Ron Hall

You might think that the inside of a TVA plant building would be a Disney-esque shrine of retro-futurism, filled with pneumatic tubes transferring coded messages between managers, all controlled by super-efficient coal powered AutoMen. But, as a matter of fact, the administrative building of the Kingston Fossil plant has more of a municipal flavor to it than an Epcot one. Foam drop ceilings and thin gray carpet abound here. Read more