Toxic Coal in Tennessee
Officials at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation say their agency and the EPA are installing air monitors to complement the TVA's air monitoring. TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton says the authority is working to prevent "fugitive dust emissions," in part by covering ash with straw and planting seeds to grow "temporary ground cover." But Chris Irwin, an attorney for United Mountain Defense, accused the TVA of using air-quality monitors that failed to meet TDEC and EPA standards. "The TVA has no idea what they are doing," he says. "Letting it handle the testing and cleanup is like letting the burglar come to the scene of the crime and dust for prints." Calabrese-Benton says the TVA is operating a high-volume monitor and is adding additional equipment.
Concerns have centered on water contamination. In the immediate aftermath of the spill, the EPA found high levels of arsenic in some spots in the Emory River, but officials assured residents that water-treatment facilities would "most likely" remove toxins before they reached the tap. According to EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young, the agency has stopped conducting surface-water tests, instead relying on the state to conduct tests that determine impacts on aquatic ecology rather than on levels of drinking-water contamination. In the weeks since the accident, the TDEC and TVA have consistently reported little to no contamination in highly affected areas downstream from the spill. Yet two private groups told The Nation their data show arsenic levels many times higher than what the TVA has reported. One of them, Appalachian Voices, a local conservation group, claims to have tested on the same day and at the same river mile marker as TVA field scientists. "But our values from that day are 310-fold over what the TVA reported," says Donna Lisenby, a river monitor for the group.
Experts suggested that such large differences may be explained by the fact that ash plumes don't spread evenly throughout a river--samples from inside a floating plume will reveal greater contamination than those taken in cleaner water. For Linda Tarwater, whose house was spared, all the assurances in the world don't change the fact that a glass of water from her kitchen sink has a gray film on top. "Even though they tell us the water is fine," she says, "we've stopped drinking it." She says at least eleven people who live closer to the ash are complaining of breathing problems, burning eyes and itchy throats.
Early on, TVA officials suggested the spill could have been caused by heavy rains and freezing temperatures. But McKinney of the TWRA says the TVA failed to drain water properly from the structure. He also says the authority failed to monitor hydrology inside the containment pond and test its structural integrity after fixing small leaks. "There were no regulations that forced them to keep track of the hydrology as the ash piled up and put pressure on the failed slope," he says. "And no law forced them to use engineering techniques to get a big-picture look at things after they plugged holes." When asked about the claims, TVA spokeswoman Martocci says the authority has hired independent experts to determine the cause of the spill.
With outrage building, Congress is rushing to regulate. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing in January that led to promises to regulate coal ash. In the House, Representative Nick Rahall has put forward a bill to establish uniform federal standards for disposing of coal combustion products, and newly appointed EPA head Lisa Jackson told the Senate in her confirmation hearing that the coal ash issue would be on the front burner for the agency.
Lobbyists see storm clouds. "The utility industry recognizes that some sort of regulatory structure or guidance is going to come," says David Goss, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association. His affiliates are heading to Congress with "technical information that demonstrates clearly that coal combustion products are not hazardous materials and that their toxicity is similar to comparable products used in everyday settings." Volz scoffs at this idea. "Nobody with even a rudimentary understanding of environmental science can ignore the scores of ecological studies that show toxins in coal ash damage aquatic ecology," he says. "This spill has exposed the coal industry's dirty little secret, which is that nobody knows what to do with all of this coal waste."