A shorter version of this article appeared in the April 20 issue of The Nation. Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
The Tennessee Valley Authority manipulated science methods to downplay water contamination caused by a massive coal ash disaster, according to independent technical experts and critics of the federally funded electrical company.
The TVA is the largest public provider of electricity in the nation, providing power to 670,000 homes and burning through some 14,000 tons of coal per day. On December 22 the authority made headlines when one of its retention ponds collapsed, letting loose an avalanche of coal ash–the toxic residue left over when coal is burned. More than 5 million cubic yards of ashy mud pushed its way through a neighborhood and into Tennessee’s Emory River, knocked houses off foundations and blanketed river water with plumes of gray scum that flowed downstream.
New evidence indicates that in the wake of the disaster, the TVA may have intentionally collected water samples from clean spots in the Emory River, a major supplier of drinking water for nearby cities and a popular site for recreational activities such as swimming and fishing. Third-party tests have found high levels of toxins in the river water and in private wells, while the TVA has assured residents that tap water, well water and river water are safe.
In the days after the spill, the TVA assured the public that the coal ash was “inert material.” But soon questions emerged about the chemistry of the ash, particularly the presence of toxic elements like selenium and arsenic. Scientists said the toxins were dissolving unseen into the Emory, which feeds into two other rivers–the Tennessee and the Clinch–and supplies municipal water treatment plants.
Trust in the authority, a massive local employer and an icon of the Roosevelt administration, has faded. In February an internal TVA memo obtained by the Associated Press showed that the authority was polishing its public statements. In that document, TVA officials changed the description of the disaster from “catastrophic” to “sudden” and “accidental” and removed the phrases “risk to public health” and “risk to the environment” as reasons for measuring water quality. At least four lawsuits have been filed since the December spill, and a federal judge has ordered the authority not to destroy any documents. Meanwhile, a recent survey by Tennessee’s state health department said that one third of the residents living near the spill are reporting breathing problems.
Many residents question government claims that water treatment facilities will effectively filter tap water for toxins such as arsenic and selenium. They also voice deep concerns about a longer list of toxins swirling in untreated river water and those appearing, according to private water samples, in private drinking wells. Some residents have complained of a gray film in their tap water and of a burning sensation on their skin and in their eyes after taking a shower.