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Can America Clean Up from Its Worst Environmental Disaster? [Contains Photo Slideshow]

With the breaking of a coal waste dam in Tennessee, environmental and human health is threatened by millions of pounds of toxic chemicals.

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Residents in the affected area expressed frustration at TVA's response to citizens. DeAnna Copeland likened it to going to the emergency room for care and being put in a waiting room. "First they send the receptionist to check on you; next they send the candy striper. We need the doctor!"

In the wake of the spill, Kingston City Councilman Brant Williams called an emergency community meeting to be held at the Kingston Community Center, on Sunday, December 28. Five of the seven council members attended along with the Mayor Troy Beets, who also heads the City council, Tom Kilgore, CEO of TVA and Ron Hall, the Kingston plant manager.

According to Kilgore, 3 homes have been condemned, 42 homes were damaged in some way; at least 63 pieces of equipment are currently engaged in clean up efforts, "24-7." One by one, citizens raised their hands to make comments and ask questions. Mayor Beets handed each person a microphone, which usually ended up back in the hands of TVA CEO Tom Kilgore, who answered questions for hours.

Considering the magnitude of the spill, citizens were almost eerily polite; there was much talk of "not wanting to bash TVA." Some residents affected by the coal sludge spill expressed concern that if they spoke out against TVA that family members who did business with the company could lose their jobs.

Citizens listened to Kilgore enumerate the TVA plan of action: first to ensure public safety, second, to contain the spill, and third, the recovery stage. Kilgore repeatedly described planned efforts to monitor the water, air and soil around the spill but never explained to the approximately 300 people why these precautions were being taken.

He addressed the safety of clean up crews and admitted that he pulled them off task when rains came over the weekend after the spill, "you can imagine that it is kind of dangerous working with this stuff," he said. However, when a citizen later quoted back his statement and questioned health and safety issues, Kilgore said that he was describing the slickness endangering the workers, not the actual content of the spilled waste.

But there may be good reason for alarm. Activists representing United Mountain Defense, River Keepers and Citizen Coal Council distributed information about coal ash and its dangers at the meeting. Stephen Smith of CleanEnergy.org demanded that Kilgore tell the crowd what is in the coal ash. Kilgore refused to answer saying only that, "we are concentrating our efforts on clean up."

Chris Irwin, with United Mountain Defense, spoke to the crowd warning them that this community meeting was "nothing more than a public relations snow job." As reported in the New York Times, December 30, TVA finally revealed an inventory of the Kingston Fossil Plant waste generation in detail : "In just one year, the plant's byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems. And the holding pond ... contained many decades' worth of these deposits."

Subsequently, independent tests of the water quality at the spill site and downstream, in coordination with Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance's Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Program, were conducted and analyzed this week. The results are frightening. Tests were conducted at the Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry labs at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. At the Kingston plant's canal intake, the tests revealed arsenic levels 300 times what federal laws allow; all samples contained "elevated levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury , nickel and thallium," according to Appalachian Voices' website.