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The Aftermath of the TVA Coal Ash Disaster

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This is the latest in our series of community coal ash profiles. This was written by Sierra Club Apprentice Philip Hawes.

Tennessee's Emory River has long been treasured for its natural beauty.

In 1867, when a young man by the name of John Muir decided to walk from his home in Indiana, all the way to Florida, he crossed the Emory River. Its beauty struck him, and he wrote the following in his journal (which became his famed book "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf"):

"There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it."

Unfortunately, 141 years later, the Emory River would inspire sorrow.

On December 22, 2008, a little before 1 a.m., an earthen dam holding back an 84-acre coal ash disposal pond, collapsed. A flood of 1.1 billion gallons (around six times the amount of BP's oil disaster) of coal ash slurry poured into the Emory River and onto the surrounding land. Coal ash is the by-product of burning coal for electricity and contains toxic materials such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and selenium. The spill covered more than 400 acres and destroyed houses, roads, and trees in its path.

"It was unreal. There's no way to imagine what it was like," said Steve Scarborough, a resident of Roane County, where the disaster took place. "They keep saying it's an ash spill. That's like saying an avalanche is a snow spill."

The earthen dam that failed had problems for years, including multiple leaks. And Scarborough, a civil engineer himself, said that the fixes they made were inadequate, based on bad engineering, and chosen just to cut costs. According to Scarborough, it was "just sheer incompetence. And the community suffered because of it."

Scarborough owns two properties on a lake adjacent to the spill site. He had purchased them ten years earlier as an investment. Before the disaster he had both properties on the market, deciding to sell them in order to put his kids through college. But now, he said, "They're worth pennies on the dollar."

Despite the national real estate market being down in late 2008, the real estate values in the area were relatively strong - until they crumbled following the coal ash disaster.

Scarborough said, "Even in the worst of times there are still people retiring, and we are that market. This is where they retire to. The value of waterfront properties had not yet declined." But afterwards, no one wanted to buy property, even miles away.

He spoke of one couple that decided against waterfront property in Roane County after hearing about the coal ash disaster: "The wife saw the newspaper and they stormed out. They bought waterfront property; they just bought it the next county."

Many land owners sued the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which operates the coal plant and coal ash disposal site responsible for the disaster, for the lost value of their property. But Scarborough said that to get money for their property, many of the people signed settlements with TVA that included a gag order and a waiver for any future health problems. Scarborough hasn't filed a lawsuit with TVA, saying he's just "trying to get TVA to do the right thing. Whatever's fair." But, he added, "They just don't want to do it."

The economic problems due to the disaster aren't limited to real estate. The tourism industry in the area has also been severely hurt, and Scarborough said that's affected the entire local economy, calling it "economic devastation."

The cost of cleanup could end up totaling $1 billion, in addition to lost property value, lost tourism, and the effects it has had on the rest of the local economy, as well as possible health risks.

Following the disaster, TVA performed a health study to find out if any health problems had been caused by the spill. But, Scarborough said, the study was very incomplete. Out of the 200 volunteers that participated in the study, only a small handful actually lived in the immediate area.

"The study came out saying that there are no health effects. That's total bullsh-t. They're putting their heads in the sand. And they're trying to push our heads in the sand." He continued, "If you believe TVA, I've got a couple lakeside lots to show you."

For the almost two years since the disaster occurred, TVA has been dredging coal ash out of the water, putting it into rail cars, and sending it to Alabama to another disposal site. Scarborough said they fill around 100 rail cars a day with the material.

TVA claims to have removed around 90% of the coal ash, but Scarborough believes isn't true. He says as they're dredging, they pick up a lot of sediment along with the ash. Any material that is less than half sediment is classified as coal ash, which means a lot of what they're picking up isn't actually coal ash.

Above all, Scarborough is tired of coal companies avoiding responsibility for their mistakes.

"If we put a rock through someone's window, we have to buy a new window, and that doesn't seem to be the case with these coal companies. TVA is in denial - they aren't owning up to what they've done."

The disaster in Tennessee was one of the major reasons Lisa Jackson and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed new safeguards for coal ash disposal. Having proposed two possible rulings, EPA has been holding public hearings around the country for citizens to weigh in on the decision. Scarborough traveled to North Carolina to testify at the September 14th EPA hearing and he’ll also attend the Tennessee hearing on October 27th.

Scarborough said that the disaster in Tennessee wouldn't have happened if EPA had already passed federal safeguards for coal ash disposal.

"Having seen the results of lax oversight, we feel we have to campaign for the most stringent regulatory option," he said. "This cannot be left to the states where lobbyists wield oversized power on compliant legislators. We don't want anyone else to go through what we've been through."

Scarborough points out that the coal ash from the Tennessee disaster that has been shipped to Alabama still hasn't gone away. "To be honest with you, the remedy, where they're storing the ash now, it's not contained. They just built a wall around it." Since there still aren't yet any federal regulations, the same coal ash that caused so much destruction in Tennessee still isn't being stored in a safe manner.

Scarborough calls Roane County stunningly beautiful and is hopeful for the time years from now when the mess is cleaned up. But about John Muir's famous walk, he says, "He'd be pretty disappointed in what he saw if he was there today."

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