The Human Impact: What TVA Isn't Saying about the Coal Spill Disaster
As a result of a 1.1 billion gallon spill of contaminated fly ash, there has been discussion, press reportage and blogging about the environmental disaster in eastern Tennessee. Most of us have seen the pictures -- a 300+ acre area strewn with black and brown muck as far as the eye can see. Houses lifted off their foundations and thrown across the road, yards filled so high with ash that people can't leave their homes without stepping in it, roadways littered with the ash from trucks going to and from the site, and an eerie still where active life once existed. While this story continues to unfold -- as more samples are taken that delineate the true toxicity of this mess, as TVA makes plans to contain and abate the disaster -- there is a story that has not been told. It is a story that must be told. And that story is the lives of innocent bystanders that have been turned upside down by this avoidable disaster.
I learned of this disaster on the news just as we all did. Usually I receive an email from someone in the community where there has been an environmental problem. At first, it was all quiet. About 10 days after the tragedy I got the first email, then another one and another one and another one, and they kept coming. I also started receiving anonymous tips. It occurred to me that maybe more was going on than what I could gather from the news. With an invitation from the community, I decided to make the trip.
Let's be honest. Usually when I am called into an environmental disaster, I anticipate that industry isn't going to step up to the plate and do what's right by the people. Lawsuits almost always ensue; it would be foolish for me to walk into a situation like this without an attorney. Besides, I consult with two law firms in the United States: Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles and Weitz & Luxenberg in New York. I traveled to the area with an attorney, Robin Greenwald from Weitz and Luxenberg, along with some experts. In many instances such as this disaster, government agencies are absent due to lack of funds and can only rely on the information that industry gives them; and industry generally operates under concealment.
When I first arrived on the site, I was pretty quiet. It took a while to absorb what I was looking at. I knew there was a lake but an entire area was gone. I kept wondering "Where did the water go?" I couldn't decide if it looked more like a tornado had gone through, a mudslide, landslide, maybe a volcano erupted or a tidal wave. It is now a "moonscape." The landscape has completely changed. It is almost unidentifiable.
Watching TV never gives you an idea of the extent of damage. It's only when you stand there that you can actually feel the magnitude.
It struck me that I had an unusual taste on my lips and in my mouth. I asked others if they noticed that, and they did. Some experienced scratchy throats, respiratory problems, itchy and burning eyes and tasted what one expert believed to be sulfuric acid. If we were experiencing this much discomfort after a few minutes, what on earth are the people who live here feeling?
The other thing that stood out in my mind was how fortunate it was that this event took place when it did.
What would it have been like had this occurred in the summer during the middle of the day? Hundreds of people boat on this lake. Children swim and play in these waters. I was struck by the number of deaths that might have occurred but didn't.
This corner of Roane County Tennessee is off the beaten path. It is remote, distant from any main street and city noise. It is easy to see the beauty of rolling mountains, lakes, rivers, comfortable family homes. It is serene, a piece of heaven on earth. This was a safe place to raise kids, to teach them to fish and swim, to enjoy family and have barbecues or sit quietly to watch the sunset on warm summer nights. I could see why people live there. Over the past couple of weeks we have had the opportunity to speak with people about life both before December 22. Life in the Kingston/Harriman area was idyllic. It was a place people chose as their home. It was a place that, even if jobs took people away in their youth, they awaited the day they could return and did so as soon as possible. It is a beautiful place, with water bodies everywhere. There are green meadows laced among the waters. These shared memories come to life in the "before" photographs that residents showed us. The pictures show children diving from docks into the lake, people canoeing along the rivers, families tubing in the hot summer sun and children and their dogs walking along the shore. A favorite scene of many residents is the sunset over the water, with the soft nighttime colors glistening on the lake. It went from pristine to profaned overnight.
The "after" picture is nothing but a sludge-filled lake, dead fish and miles and miles of contamination flowing out of control. And what cannot be captured by photographs is the human toll of this disaster. The child who wakes up nightly with nightmares; the woman whose cough is so severe she can hardly speak and has been diagnosed with acute asthma from the ash spill; the tri-athlete who can no longer train in his environs; the families scared to death to go outside for fear they breathe in the toxic ash in the air; people realizing that TVA's recommendation to boil their water before drinking it in the wake of the disaster was a false comfort and bottled water, at their own expense, is the only solution for drinking; and the couple who lives downwind of the disaster who, following walking their dog on a hilltop on a windy night, suffered severe nose bleeds. This is a very frightening time for the people of this community. This community is incredibly brave, but it is also rightfully fearful -- they love their community, their homes, their environment and they don't want to leave, but they also don't want to stay at the risk of their health. They want answers and they can't get them. Many people have the same tale: they call the TVA hotline for answers and help but no one answers or returns their calls. Why does this happen? What did they do to deserve such treatment? I can only imagine the sadness of the families. The whole area looks like a wound on the land. To heal it, it's going to take more than a band-aid and a squirt of Bactine.
The next day of my visit we did a fly over of the site, which showed the big picture. Extending for at least 5 to 6 miles downstream, we could see a plume of this toxic ash floating down the river, resting on the banks. We saw the remaining refrigerator and patch of roof where the now demolished house once stood. We saw a child's trampoline, once in someone's backyard, now buried in TVA's toxic sludge. We saw miles of ash, still traveling down river, contaminating riverbanks along the way. In truth, there are no words to describe the scenes of devastation from this disaster. The pictures are powerful, but they simply cannot capture the panorama of devastation. This was a sludge tsunami -- but one caused by corporate neglect, not natural occurrences. And what it left behind from this tsunami are mounds of toxic rubble where a lake once existed, where rivers flow and where children used to play.
We all wonder what will happen to the ecosystem: the fish and wildlife. The human life. How far reaching is this event? What does the future hold for the public health and safety? Overnight a whole community's lifestyle is gone.
It is bad enough that TVA mismanaged this 50+ year old waste pile of coal ash. But to put salt in the wounds of its neighbors by failing to provide critically important answers and aid is incomprehensible. TVA should have mobilized hundreds of medical experts to go to peoples' homes and answer their questions. They need to be honest and transparent about their knowledge of the make-up of the sludge, what they plan to do with it and how they intend to return life to what it used to be, if that is even possible. TVA should have a hotline that is manned sufficiently so that no one is ever put on hold or, worse yet, not answered at all. The residents of this community deserve to be treated with honesty and respect, and that is not happening. Even local elected officials are letting residents down, spending their time telling residents not to work with attorneys instead of camping outside TVA's doors demanding honest and fast answers to critically important health questions. As you know, we work on the legal side. While we cannot fully appreciate the pain and fear of those who are living the fall out of this disaster on a daily basis, we saw and heard enough to understand that our presence and our voice is critically important to ensure that this community is treated fairly and provided the truth about the present situation and their future. We will continue to aid this community as it struggles through the haze that TVA has created and continues to fuel.
So many questions come to mind but there aren't any answers. My motto has become "Prevention rather than Rescue."
Hindsight always shows how these tragedies could have been prevented. If history teaches us anything, it shows us that yesterday is our "crystal ball." In the now famous case, Pacific Gas and Electric knew that their contamination was affecting innocent people yet did nothing but try to convince people that the poison was good for them.
If TVA knew of leaks years before this disaster and sat and waited, is "oops" we're sorry" going to be enough?
The infrastructure handling coal fly ash in the U.S. is old and needs to be replaced. Can we worry about the cost of replacing the old with the new when health and safety and the environment depends on it? We can see that contamination moves through air, land and water. Can we sit back and wait for communities to get sick when we can prevent it now?
Science usually lags behind the law. But in this case, law lags behind science because coal fly ash handling is not regulated as it should be. And we have a pretty good grasp on the fact that Coal Fly Ash is not healthy.
A poison is a poison. It certainly can't be good for you. Does anyone believe that the arsenic in the fly ash along with other heavy metals won't leech into the groundwater? 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic compounds unleashed into the garden. We don't need a crystal ball to see the rough road ahead.