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Why the Nation's Biggest Environmental Distaster May Be About to Get Worse

Scientists fear that the TVA's plan for cleaning up its toxic sludge spill in Tennessee may do more harm than good.

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The TVA says that the ASU study's claim is unfounded. In a written response to questions submitted by The Nation , TVA officials said that the authority, two state agencies and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are analyzing fish tissue for selenium, and that information about selenium levels in Tennessee rivers is slim. "While the Appalachian State University researcher's contention that selenium could have leached from the failed pond over the years is interesting, there is no data to support that contention," the statement said. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) said that the state has viewed the data from ASU. According to a TDEC statement: "We respect their views on this subject, but there is no evidence that materials have historically 'leached' from the ash ponds at the Kingston facility." Department officials also told The Nation that the TDEC had studied fish samples, finding that levels of selenium in their tissue "did not exceed EPA's draft national selenium criterion based on fish tissue concentrations." Federal and state officials say they are monitoring the dredging operation closely and will stop if the operation is found to kick up high levels of selenium from the sediment into the water column.

Pressure to Dredge

Despite warnings that the dredging may trigger a major toxic event, the TVA, backed by federal and state officials, is following through with its plans. "There apparently has been horrendous pressure to dredge at any costs," said Bryce Payne, an independent environmental consultant who has been working on fly ash for more than fifteen years. "But the fish and similarly vulnerable biota in the Emory and Clinch River system simply will not be able to tolerate additional selenium."

Payne, who is considered by some to be the nation's top expert on coal ash issues, has led a behind-the-scenes effort -- alongside some of the nation's top selenium scientists -- to convince the TVA that the selenium problem is a loaded gun, that the authority's water-monitoring plan is faulty on scientific principle and that alternatives to dredging may well help avoid serious damage caused by selenium.

In two recent conference calls with dozens of officials and experts, Payne laid out one alternate plan to avoid floods, by digging a bypass channel around the ash dam. Payne proposes alternate ash removal approaches, including one that calls for adding lime, a relatively inert substance that causes the ash to solidify in place in the river, then removing the ash in solid form, essentially locking in selenium loads. The downside: the technique has been demonstrated only on a smaller pilot scale. On March 20, Paul Sloan, deputy commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, sent an e-mail to Payne and over a dozen people, including TVA and federal officials, who had been on one of the conference calls. "We believe the risks of selenium contamination are manageable with proper planning and attention, and that the risks of delaying ash removal outweigh the risk that might associate with selenium," Sloan wrote. He said that the EPA and TDEC will carefully monitor river water near the dredge operation for selenium contamination and added that the agencies plan to "follow up on fish testing samples."

Federal officials, for their part, stress that they will monitor the river water closely, and shut down the multimillion-dollar dredging operation if too much selenium is found. "If selenium or other constituents we are monitoring exceed regulatory limits, the dredging will be stopped so we can determine appropriate next steps," said Dana Tulis, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Emergency Management.

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