Erin 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.
"A lot of people around here defend their homes with a Smith & Wesson," says Ron Smith with more than a touch of suspicion in his voice.
That sounds odd coming from him. After all, he is an upper-middle class network analyst. He's young—at 39, just beginning to settle into the graying side of middle age. Judging by the four computers in the family's well-appointed living room (complete with an imposing high-definition television), he works out of his house quite a bit.
Ron and his wife Joanie, a bookkeeper who's also 39, are just about to sit down to a dinner of takeout sushi for his daughter's (her stepdaughter's) 15th birthday.
Under normal circumstances, these would be "Stick around, we've TiVoed the last two weeks of Deal or No Deal," people, not "I'm implying that we have a gun in the house" people.
But this past week, there have been widespread reports in the area of robberies by home invaders pretending to be Tennessee Health Department officials. Maybe he thinks there's cause for concern in some guy claiming to be a reporter who wants to come by and "check out the house."
The Smiths, after all, moved into this backwoods plot in part for the safety it's supposed to provide. Of course, when they used to think about safety, they would think about things like crime rates—negligible there.
"It's not like in Knoxville here," he says. "You call the police here, they're at your house in five minutes."
And Joanie says she liked the natural beauty of the place, now marred by the spill.
"It sits on a lake. It's a beautiful little town. Great community, great people," says Joanie. "We never thought about there being a problem living next to the plant."
Now they pointedly offer their guests bottled—not tap—water, "unless it's somebody from TVA. They can drink from the tap," says Ron. Two weeks ago, he went to Washington with a group of other area residents to talk to Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee encouraging federal regulations for the storage of coal ash. Becoming a de facto ecological spokesman is a new role for Ron.
"Am I an environmentalist now?" he says, laughing.
"Yeah, you've gone over to the other side," Joanie says.
Ron sees himself as a realist on the coal issue, saying that while he believes utilities like TVA will have to make strides in the direction of beefing up alternative energy sources, coal will remain an important source of power, and TVA should focus on storing it properly rather than replacing it immediately.
"Yes, coal is a finite resource. I know that," he says. "But it's a vital resource for this region."
They've both had a lot to get used to, of course.
"This spill has become the center of our lives," says Joanie. "It's on our minds from the second we get up in the morning to the second we go to sleep." That makes sense: The five-acre property backs right up to slurry ground zero.
Now, the couple says, the experience has spoiled what they once thought of as their "dream house," and they want to get out of town. They've been waiting on an assessment, and hopefully a purchase offer, from the utility. They say they're trusting TVA to do the right thing and give them a fair price on the property, which they had assessed at $350,000 last year. They haven't talked to a lawyer—neighbors on both sides of the property are already involved in lawsuits against the utility—or their home insurance company, or even a third party appraiser to help negotiate with whatever estimate TVA gives them.
"Maybe we're naive," says Joanie.
The couple purchased the home in late 2006 for $285,000. It was perfect for their purposes. The house—a three-bedroom brick mini-mansion that would fit in well in any West Knoxville subdivision-—suited their purposes nicely. The fact that it's brand new, built in 2005, fit Ron's tastes, and the fact that it sits on so much land is good for Joanie. She owns horses and teaches riding lessons in the backyard, a second source of income that's been, at least temporarily, taken from them as a result of the spill. They call the place "Soggy Bottom Farm."
"We'd looked for a long time. And any time you find any land with a house, usually the house is very rundown or very old," says Ron.
The family got the call about the spill in the middle of the night.
"My daughter Katie's boyfriend is on the rescue squad. He called us about 1 a.m. to tell us what happened," Joanie says. Then, he came to their door at 1:15 a.m. to make sure they were okay. "He said there was a big mudslide, and that we better be ready to go. Of course, you can't fathom what a mudslide is in Tennessee."
So they went to sleep, but then were pulled out of bed again.
"I'd say it was about 20 minutes later, there was like eight units of ambulances, rescue equipment, everything out behind the house. The back of the house was all lit up in blue and red," Joanie says. "Still, at this point, we had no idea of what we were looking at."
Then, the next morning, Joanie was on her way to work and she saw the full extent of the damage.
"I was shocked," she says. "It was like The Twilight Zone. I just couldn't believe it... It looked like—well, I've never seen a volcanic eruption up close, but that's what it seemed like."
But, she says, the problems really started for the family the following Saturday.
"The TVA had a blockade set up on the street," says Joanie. "We needed passes on our cars to get to our own house. I was just like, ‘Are you kidding me?'"