Jan 14 2009
07:56 am

UPDATE: WATE's complete report is now online at their website.

WATE's special report "Lessons Learned: The TVA Fly Ash Spill" was an excellent, in-depth report and panel discussion on the TVA fly ash spill. It's the best local TV news coverage I have seen on the disaster and it helps that WATE devoted a full hour to cover a complicated situation. The report is a "crash course" on the incident that covered a lot of good, accurate information on the environmental, public health and policy issues.

WATE's Gene Patterson told us they hope to have the full broadcast posted on their website sometime today. Following are notes on some highlights.

Panel participants were Kingston Plant Manager Ron Hall, TVA Sr. VP Environmental Executive Andra Ray, Roane Co. EMA Director Howie Rose, Roane Co. Executive Mike Farmer, Tom Schmaltz from Headwater Resources, Rene Hoyos from the Tennessee Clean Water Network, and Dr. Stephen Smith from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The most powerful part was a segment with Jeff and Angie Spurgeon and their two daughters who (used to) live on the Emory River cove that was wiped out by the avalanche of sludge. The Spurgeons put a human face on the disaster.

During a live segment with the panel, Jeff Spurgeon asked what TVA's plans were for cleaning up the cove. Ron Hall's response suggested there isn't a definite plan yet, and that right now the priority is to contain the sludge in the cove until they figure out what to do.

Angie Spurgeon, who has decided her family can't continue to live there, said they have an appraisal and wanted to know what to do next. She noted that their damages go beyond the value of their home, affecting their quality of life and future plans. She said they haven't lawyered up yet, but want to know what TVA is going to do to compensate them, and where they go if they can't come to terms with TVA. Andra Ray's only response was that TVA was sorry this happened to them and that TVA will work with them.

Ron Hall gave an update on the status of the cleanup and the investigation into the cause of the retaining pond failure. He said that TVA had no indication of a pending failure, but did acknowledge the 2008 inspection report which seems to suggest otherwise. Hall seems like a decent guy, but my impression is that his job is to keep the boilers burning and the workers safe and happy. He didn't design the ponds or the fly ash management system, and based on comments here at KnoxViews their maintenance and operation may have been contracted out to a third party.

Anda Ray has an impressive resume, but she appears to be another TVA executive whose primary job function is to shovel B.S. It's a tough being put on the spot regarding issues that will likely result in future litigation, so it's understandable that they have to be careful what they say. But TVA needs to get out of CYA mode and start being proactive and forthcoming about what they know and don't know and what their plans are.

Howie Rose gave a good report on the water quality testing, assuring residents that all municipal water supplies are safe. He said that all source and treated water is being continuously tested, along with groundwater around the area, and that all testing so far is within acceptable limits.

Mike Farmer said Roane County is only interested in two things: One, that Roane Count is put back the way it was and residents are made whole, and two, that TVA takes steps to ensure this never happens again.

Tom Schmaltz is with Headwater Resources, a company that recycles coal combustion byproducts to make building materials such as concrete, drywall, and shingles. He discussed the various beneficial uses and public safety considerations. This prompted a discussion about recycling fly ash. Everyone including Stephen Smith agreed that recycling fly ash is preferable to wet pond storage. (See our report on this very topic from yesterday.)

Gene Patterson asked Anda Ray directly why TVA wasn't doing that. Her evasive answer was that TVA recycles 40% to 45% of coal combustion byproducts. That figure is straight from a recent TVA environmental policy report, presumably written by her office. Environmental scorecard reports (also presumably produced by her office) seem to back that up, at least system wide.

However, in relation to Kingston and fly ash disposal in Roane Co. (the topic of the program), another TVA report said that "Due to the absence of an operational dry fly ash collection system at KIF [Kingston], none of the fly ash has been marketed since 1990," and that installation of NOX scrubbers at Kingston may make the materials unsuitable for recycling because of increased ammonia content. There was mention of a proposed plan to market up to 60,000 tons of Kingston bottom ash per year, but that would only be about 10% of the ash produced at Kingston. We are unable to find any information on whether this ever developed.

Rene Hoyos talked about the damaging impact on fisheries and aquatic life, saying that it could last up to twenty years. She also noted that the cleanup (which would presumably involve dredging) would stir up long buried "legacy" toxic pollution from Oak Ridge that has settled in the river and lake beds. (For more on that environmental disaster, see one of the many EPA Record of Decision reports on the Melton Valley Watershed.)

Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, talked about how coal is dirty business, from mining it to burning it to handling the waste. Regarding exposure to the fly ash materials, he urged residents to err on the side of caution until more is known and the mess is cleaned up.

WhitesCreek's picture

Great summary, Randy. One

Great summary, Randy. One point regarding Renee's comment. Ron Hall showed me the just completed sonar map of the underwater ash flow. So far it is contained in the Emory river above where the real nasties live in the Clinch channel. There is a strong opposition within TVA to stirring anything up below the mouth of the Emory and so far it looks like there's no need to.

R. Neal's picture

There is a strong opposition

There is a strong opposition within TVA to stirring anything up below the mouth of the Emory and so far it looks like there's no need to.

Good. Hope it stays that way.

Stick Thrower's picture


Good grief. I doubt the Spurgeons need to hire an Erin Brockovich type at this point. But if this isn't a situation where you need some legal counsel on your side, what is?

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