Tennesse Residents Complain About Coal Ash Site Cleanup

June 9, 2009

Tennessee residents who live near the site of a massive coal ash spill told a Texas congresswoman recently that they worry about their health, the lost value their homes and the slow pace of the cleanup by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment oversees the TVA and already has held two hearings in Washington about the Dec. 22 breach in a huge coal ash storage facility at Kingston that released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic-laden ashen muck into the Emory River and a lakeside neighborhood.

During a 90-minute town hall meeting, one resident after another told Johnson their concerns.

“I don’t have an answer for you today, but I will get you one,” the Dallas Democrat said.

Resident Gary Topmiller said his dock is coated with ash, “our property has become a prison,” and he’s suffering nosebleeds and coughing. He called TVA “a cold bunch of people” who won’t help “because we hired an attorney.”

“This will not be the end of it,” Johnson said after the meeting. “This is just the beginning.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assumed oversight of the cleanup about a month ago. To this point, most of TVA’s work has been focused on building systems to contain the ash and repairing infrastructure, including roads and railroad lines to the site.

Leo Francendese, EPA’s onsite coordinator, shared residents’ concern about the pace of the actual cleanup.

“We need to move faster about getting ash out of the river,” he told the audience.

The cleanup began at 1,000 cubic yards of ash a day, he said. It’s now up to 4,000 cubic yards a day, will soon go to 6,000-8,000 cubic yards daily and should be at 15,000 cubic yards daily by the end of July.

“I have set a time limit of no later than the spring of next year to have the lion’s share of the ash out of the river,” Francendese said. “That is a dramatic improvement from the two, three or five-year plans that we have heard.”

TVA chief environmental officer Anda Ray said the utility views the disaster as “very personal to us” because of its long association with the Kingston community and tried to assure residents that TVA “remains committed to clean this up.”

Johnson expressed little sympathy for TVA, the nation’s largest public utility, which has been operating the coal-fired Kingston plant since the 1950s.

“To let it (the ash) pile up that much that it could spill over, to me is irresponsibility,” she said.

When one resident said it seemed unfair TVA ratepayers will have to pay for cleaning up a disaster caused by the utility’s mistakes, Johnson said, “I can’t even imagine TVA not having any kind of insurance.”

TVA reported in a recent financial document that some of its insurers are denying claims.

Among the complaints, resident Penny Dotson told Johnson her grandson was having respiratory problems, so TVA relocated them to a rental house. But she said TVA recently told her the lease was canceled and she didn’t know where they will go.

Donnie and Sharon Andrews said Sharon’s chronic hepatitis is worsening and they blame the spill. They said their doctor refused to check her for heavy metal contamination, but TVA officials said toxicologists working under a TVA contract with Oak Ridge Associated Universities will provide those kinds of tests for free.

TVA has settled about 50 personal claims with residents and businesses, but has seven lawsuits pending in federal court, including some that would seek class-action status.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said last week the agency has spent $108 million on the cleanup so far and still estimates the final tab could reach nearly $1 billion.

TVA has 9 million consumers across Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

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