TVA head pledges to test wells near coal ash spill

Published 1:32 am Monday, December 29, 2008

KINGSTON, Tenn. (AP) — The CEO and president of the nation’s largest public utility promised Sunday to address the health and safety concerns of a community near a major coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee.

Tom Kilgore, who heads the Tennessee Valley Authority, said the utility will pay to test local wells for contamination and would start air quality testing.

Kilgore spoke to between 200 and 300 residents who gathered Sunday to get answers about the environmental and economic impact of Monday’s spill.

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‘‘This is not a time when TVA holds its head high,’’ Kilgore said. ‘‘I’m here to say we are going to clean it up and we are going to clean it up right.’’

More than a billion gallons of coal fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, spilled Monday when the dike burst on a retention pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The spill covered 300 acres with sludge in Harriman, about 35 miles west of Knoxville. It dumped a mix of ash and water in the Emory River, causing residents of nearby Kingston to worry about their drinking water.

TVA has said the water is safe to drink.

Three homes were destroyed and 42 property owners had damage of some kind, according to Roane County emergency management officials.

Crystell Flinn’s home and all her belongings were swept away by the ash slide, only three days before Christmas. Now, she and the rest of her family are living in a hotel paid for by TVA.

Kilgore said TVA is providing for the short-term needs of the three families whose homes were destroyed, but Flinn said there is nothing to return to.

‘‘It looks like a tsunami,’’ Flinn said. ‘‘It’s not like they can scoop it up and scrape it off.’’

The meeting was to have been held in a community center but was moved to a larger space, a local high school gymnasium, because the crowd was larger than expected.

Kilgore fielded some angry questions, responding to all of them in a measured tone. He promised to send TVA staff to follow up with individual property owners.

Many residents complained during the meeting that the spill would decrease the value of their homes, many of which sit on the banks of the river or nearby Watts Bar Lake. Others said they were worried their cattle would ingest contaminated grass or water.

Sandy Dickman’s home was spared, but his land is covered with several feet of gray sludge. He said he doesn’t believe the water is safe.

‘‘I don’t think I’ll be drinking the water,’’ he said.

Dickman moved to the area in 1975 and said he’s always suspected that the holding pond would fail.

Kilgore was asked again Sunday what caused the failure of the pond. He replied that TVA is still investigating.

TVA has said cold weather and above normal rains contributed to the dike’s burst.

Dickman said he fears what will happen when the sludge dries out and turns to dust.

‘‘Once that stuff dries and the wind picks it up, then the trouble starts,’’ Dickman said. ‘‘It will look like a blizzard in the Arctic.’’

Kilgore said the TVA is currently focusing on cleanup, but could not say how long it would take.

A handful of people in the audience carried anti-coal industry signs, including one that said ‘‘Clean Coal is a mess.’’

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said Saturday that authorities should more strongly warn residents that muck from the spill could pose health risks.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said Friday that the mixture of coal fly ash and water didn’t pose an immediate risk to residents unless they ingested it.

Elevated contaminant levels were found in water samples in the immediate area of the spill, but not around the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment Plant, which supplies drinking water to residents, state officials said.