TVA Promises to Clean Up Fly Ash Spill, Faces Criticism Over Response

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has promised to clean up more than a billion gallons of <"">fly ash that spilled from one of its retention ponds near Knoxville last week.  Meanwhile, an environmental group is faulting the TVA for failing to adequately warn residents in the area of the spill of possible toxins that might be contained in the sludge.

The Tennessee fly ash spill occurred  around 1:00 a.m. last Monday morning after  a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant in central Tennessee broke.  Though the exact cause of the accident was not known, it was thought that six inches of rain over the previous 10 days and overnight temperatures in the teens contributed to the dam breach.

The TVA said that up to 400 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, making it 48 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The authority now says that  5.4 million cubic yards of potentially toxic fly ash was released from a retention pond. According to the Knoxville News, that’s triple the estimate of  1.7 million cubic yards the TVA released earlier this week.

The fly ash spill damaged  15 homes. All the residents were  evacuated, but at least three homes were deemed uninhabitable.  The spill also clogged the nearby Emory River,  which provides drinking water for millions of people living downstream. In the days after the spill, hundreds of fish were seen floating dead downstream from the plant.

According to the TVA, water quality tests showed elevated levels of lead and thallium. But other tests last week showed water quality was within state and federal requirements at the water intake for the city of Kingston six miles away.  The authority has yet to release results of tests to measure toxins in the coal ash.

The spill was the worst of its kind from a coal ash pond in the nation’s history.  The TVA said it could take months, if not years, to clean up the Tennessee fly ash spill.   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was supervising the cleanup, and was also trying to determine if the area engulfed by the fly ash should be deemed a Superfund site.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press,  the TVA has promised to pay to test local wells for contamination and will start air quality testing to help allay concerns about environmental problem.  But according to the report, many residents attending an emergency meeting yesterday weren’t reassured by the TVA’s promises.  They said that so far, the authority’s response has been inadequate at best.

Some complained that when they were contacted in the early hours of the morning last Monday and told to evacuate, they were given little information about the scope of the disaster, the Chattanooga Times said.  Several attendees said they had yet to receive any help from the TVA.

Many also voiced concerns  about the dangers that they could face once the fly ash sludge dries out, and becomes airborne and breathable.   According to the Chattanooga Times, the TVA is considering installing sprinklers in yards to limit the fly ash from being blown around and causing respiratory problems.

The Chattanooga Times said the  authority is still insisting that the fly ash is not toxic.  But during the meeting, Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called upon TVA Sunday to release tests done on the coal ash itself.

“It is unacceptable that we are six days into this disaster and TVA has yet to release sampling data from the ash pile,” Smith said.

Smith’s organization also criticized the TVA for downplaying the dangers posed by the sludge.  According to the Associated Press, Smith said TVA officials should more strongly encourage residents to avoid the sludge that surrounds their homes.

Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for TVA, told the Associated Press that while the company has not issued an official warning not to come in contact with the ash, she encouraged people to avoid the area.  Martocci said that anyone who touches the fly ash should wash their hands.

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