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Tenn. Coal Ash Disaster Raises Concerns about Similar Sites Nationwide

February 2, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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In December, tons of spilled coal ash devastated the town of Kingston, Tenn. Tom Bearden reports on the disaster's effects on residents, cleanup efforts and the debate over safety standards for other coal ash storage sites around the country.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour correspondent: Even today, it’s difficult for anybody who hasn’t been to Kingston, Tenn., to understand how big the problem is. Video just doesn’t do it justice.

In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 5.4 million tons of ashes created by 50 years of burning coal to generate electricity here burst through a dike, spreading like an avalanche for more than a mile, burying 300 acres of riverbank several feet deep, spilling out into the nearby river itself.

Paul Schmerbach is an environmental program manager with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC.

PAUL SCHMERBACH, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation: These two berms are the berms that failed, and this is the result of that failure. You can see that Swan Pond Circle Road here was covered. The material also migrated out into the Emory River, and this is the main channel of the Emory River. There’s something in the neighborhood of 1 million cubic yards of material out in the river area itself.

TOM BEARDEN: It’s well-established that toxic heavy metals — arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium — are present in coal ash. The questions now are: How concentrated is the toxic material? Is it migrating into the ground water? And is it blowing in the wind?

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates this plant and 10 others like it, says thousands of air and water samples taken by state and federal agencies have all come up negative. Ron Hall is the Kingston plant manager.

RON HALL, Kingston Plant Manager: You know, the good news here is the water tests by TDEC, EPA and TVA are in agreement. We don’t have water issues going into the water treatment plants. Our air quality monitoring that’s being done have not indicated that we have any issues with air quality.

Health problems linked to ash

TOM BEARDEN: Penny Dodson no longer believes that. Her 18-month-old grandson Evan suffers from cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and has chronic asthma.

Dodson stayed in her rented trailer on the riverbank for nine days after the accident, believing TVA's assertion that the ash wasn't dangerous. Then Evan went into severe respiratory distress. Dodson says a doctor told her that the airborne ash was responsible.

PENNY DODSON: You just get so mad, and then I carry guilt because we stayed, and you get angry, and you just want to lash out. And there's anxiety, and depression, and insomnia. And some days you just feel numb because something you had -- my life, basically, my future of where we're going to be has been just yanked out from under us, tore away from us. And they can't fix it.

TOM BEARDEN: TVA immediately offered to relocate the Dodsons, securing a six-month lease on this house. The agency has also been cleaning up ever since the accident. Heavy equipment operators have been working around the clock to build a new containment wall at the base of the spill.

Helicopters were used to spread grass seed and straw on the waste. They hope new growth will help prevent the ash from becoming airborne.

But Terry Gupton says the spill has ruined his farm, and he wants TVA to buy him out. The tidal wave of ash thundered up a creek that runs along his property line. He says the displaced creek water covered 25 to 30 acres of his land for three weeks, killing the grass that nourishes cattle and contaminating the soil.

TERRY GUPTON, cattle rancher: Well, I don't think I can stay here in business because of, one, the perception that people have. This thing has been all over the news, and people know about it and know the dangers of the heavy metals and things.

And now, I not only sell beef cattle to people to eat; I also sell hay to horse people to feed their horses. And I don't think in the future they'd be interested in buying products from me being I'm next to this field.

TOM BEARDEN: Tom Grizzard says the damage goes far beyond nearby homes and farms, that the entire area's economy is in ruins. Grizzard is a sixth-generation farmer who lives just down the road from the plant.

TOM GRIZZARD, farmer: Economically, people before this wanted to sell homes. Nobody will buy out here now. It has drastically reduced the price of our land. There are a couple places that I don't think will ever be back to normal.

Activist groups lobby EPA

TOM BEARDEN: But Grizzard is less skeptical of TVA than most. He believes the agency will eventually keep its promise to do the cleanup right.

Created by Congress in 1933 as part of the New Deal, TVA built dams for flood control, navigation, and hydroelectric power, infrastructure that allowed the economic development of the then-isolated Tennessee River Valley. The coal-fired plants followed in the '50s.

There are about 1,300 ash storage sites like the one in Kingston all over the country. Critics have long considered them dangerous, saying existing state regulation schemes are an ineffective patchwork. They've lobbied for decades for the Environmental Protection Agency to declare ash a hazardous waste, subject to stricter federal regulation, but EPA has twice declined to do so.

A Knoxville-based environmental group called United Mountain Defense is among those demanding EPA step in. They sent volunteers like Matt Landon to the area shortly after the spill. They organized news conferences like this one and a seminar to, as their blog put it, help residents "polish their sound bites," the goal being to keep the spill in the public eye.

They also said their independent tests of water showed high levels of toxic heavy metals. They also want to see a lot more testing done.

MATT LANDON, United Mountain Defense: We want better air-quality monitoring. Nobody right now is monitoring for VOCs, which is volatile organic compounds, which are present in the air. We can smell it. There's like smells in the air.

Other sites may be risk

TOM BEARDEN: There are some who are pointing to this like the canary in the coal mine of saying there's a thousand other sites around the country where this could happen, also. What do you think?

RON HALL, Kingston Plant Manager: Well, you know, there are quite a few other wet storage systems across the country. Until we understand what caused this failure, it will be speculation to say that they're at risk or not.

TOM BEARDEN: Hall says claims that ash storage sites like the one in Kingston have poor oversight simply aren't true. He says some EPA regulations now apply and that the site also operates under state permits.

PAUL SCHMERBACH: This is the aerial shot right after the event.

TOM BEARDEN: Supervised by Paul Schmerbach's agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Is the system as it exists today in Tennessee adequate to deal with this kind of situation?

PAUL SCHMERBACH: The governor has asked us to do a complete review of the regulatory system associated with the handling of this kind of waste. We have begun that process. We are doing a complete inspection of the other sites in Tennessee. That's part of what will feed into any regulatory changes that we might propose.

Congress drafts bill on standards

TOM BEARDEN: The coal ash debate has spilled over into Congress. A bill requiring stricter standards has already been introduced in the House.

At a recent hearing, California Sen. Barbara Boxer asked incoming EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson about re-evaluating the EPA's coal ash policies.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: Will you commit, after confirmation as administrator, to quickly -- I'm not putting a days on this -- to quickly assess these sites for immediate hazards and use EPA's authority to protect communities?

LISA JACKSON, EPA administrator: I would think that EPA needs to, first and foremost, assess the current state of what's out there and where there might be another horrible accident waiting to happen.

TOM BEARDEN: EPA staff says the agency has recently completed a risk analysis of coal ash ponds and is continuing to study the issue.

Back in Kingston, Ron Hall says TVA doesn't know how long it will take to clean up the spill or how much money it will cost, because the final reclamation plans are still being made.

JIM LEHRER: Today, United Mountain Defense announced results from 24 ground and surface water tests. They showed signs of high levels of toxic materials in the disaster area, and there are now calls for more testing by TVA, the state of Tennessee, and the Environmental Protection Agency.