Tennessee Valley Utility, County Face Ash Spill Challenges

December 23, 2009

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s top executive says changing the way waste is stored at its power plants should reduce the risk of another disastrous coal ash spill like the one that tarnished a riverside community a year ago. But he isn’t offering any guarantees.

Tom Kilgore said eliminating all wet ash and gypsum storage and converting all of TVA’s coal-fired plants to dry storage is part of a plan “to help prevent anything like the Kingston spill from ever happening again.”

He also predicts the Dec. 22, 2008, spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of ash into a river and onto the yards and fields of nearby private property won’t permanently smear the utility’s reputation with the public in its seven-state region.

“The Kingston spill is a painful part of our history, but TVA has a long tradition of being an important part of this region’s development and economic life,” Kilgore said. “We intend to continue that important role into the future and that should be TVA’s ongoing legacy.”

The Environmental Protection Agency this week called the spill at TVA’s Kingston plant “one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind in history.”

While the spill of ash from burned coal contains arsenic and potentially carcinogenic heavy metals, it is not regulated as hazardous waste. Some enviromental groups want EPA to change that. TVA owns nearly 3,000 acres of ash ponds at its other coal plants in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.

Changing the coal ash to a hazardous waste would have recyling and economic repercussions, as its byproducts are used in cement and building materials. EPA had said a decision would be made by the end of 2009 but this week said it couldn’t meet the deadline and didn’t offer a new one “due to the complexity of the analysis.” The change might not affect the Kingston cleanup because the EPA already stepped in to oversee that operation.

Kilgore said a change to hazardous waste “does have the potential to affect” ash disposal later and could increase projected cleanup costs for TVA.

TVA environmental executive Anda Ray said the utility is “treating the material right now as hazardous waste.”

TVA expects to get the spilled coal ash out of the Emory River by spring 2010 and to have the 2.4 million cubic yards that spilled on site collected by 2013.

Kilgore said the utility is “making good progress” on the projected $1.2 billion cleanup that could cause possible rate increases. He declined to speculate about the amount.

Retiree Gary Topmiller, his wife, Pam, and more than a hundred others who live in the picturesque riverfront community about 40 miles west of Knoxville have been feeling the pain along with TVA.

For a year, the Topmillers have been scraping black muck from air filters in their Emory River home where they watch and listen to TVA dredging, sprinkling and loading the metals-laden dirt in more than 100 train cars each day.

Kingston’s mayor, Troy Beets, who is also a member of the county commission for the 52,000 residents of Roane County where the spill happened, said TVA is not only footing the cost of the cleanup but also has paid out $43 million to local governments for use on projects that will improve community life but aren’t related to the environmental disaster.

The mayor said that despite the negative headlines and publicity he sees the community “being better off because of this.”

“As leaders we need to rebuild our county, not portray it in a negative light,” he said.

TVA said it has reached agreements to pay settlements to owners of 150 pieces of property and about 33 settlement offers were not accepted. Kilgore said those are based mostly on appraised values before the spill and “how much we have injured those people in terms of their property.” The settlements require property owners to release TVA from claims for future health problems or other damages.

Some people are suing and Kilgore said the utility will go to court “looking to defend ourselves as anybody would.”

Some of Topmiller’s neighbors have moved away. The EPA and Tennessee environmental officials say tests show that TVA has adequately contained any health hazard, and they commend the utility’s cleanup. No penalties have been assessed against TVA and while some people are suing, TVA contends the utility cannot be held liable for punitive damages.

Scott Segall, an attorney for coal-fired utilities and director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the spill has not seriously harmed TVA’s previously good reputation for natural resource conservation.

“There is no doubt that the events at Kingston have presented a real challenge,” he said.

Topmiller said both he and his wife have been victims of “coal ash flu” — the moniker locals give a variety of respiratory problems — and she at times has awakened with her eyes stuck shut. He said their children, due to health fears, no longer bring their grandchildren to visit their 3-year-old home that includes an upstairs apartment that he added for the visits.

“I won’t let my kids swim there again,” said Topmiller’s daughter, 40-year-old Ann Smith of Cincinnati. “He (Topmiller) spent his whole life working for that house. Now we can’t even go there.”

Smith said her 5-year-old son, Zakary, now says: “We can’t go to Pappaw’s because of the volcano.”

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