Earlier today, WATE reported TVA as saying the toxic sludge that wiped out a Roane Co. community when a retaining pond dike failed contained no hazardous materials, which is not exactly accurate. The News Sentinel later reported that it contains "heavy metals," without elaborating.

Just now, Fox 43 local news (which I believe is produced by WATE) said that residents in the affected area should boil their drinking water. They didn't say why.

As I understand it, boiling water is only effective if there is a bacterial or viral contamination. Boiling water is the last thing you want to do in the case of toxic waste contamination, because all it does is increase the concentration of toxic materials in the contaminated water.

Does anyone know why area residents are being told to boil their water, or who is advising this? Has the toxic sludge contaminated ground water and local water supplies? Has it cause some disruption of water treatment resulting in higher levels of bacteria? The news report didn't say.

Anyway, I don't know which is worse - TVA misleading the public about the hazard, other unknown officials giving out bad information, or local media blindly accepting it and passing it on without explanation or even bothering to question or google it.

I realize local news operations are operating on a shoestring budget, but maybe they should just not report anything at all if what they report is misleading or potentially makes the situation worse than it already is.

Anonymously Nine's picture

Boiling water?

What strange advice. Won't matter. Might make things a whole lot worse. The advice given is bizarre.

This is a new level in local reporting. Or omission. This is a journalistic event locally. Did we just quietly tilt into the realm where PR replaced reporting?

Joe328's picture

Not really sure but I

Not really sure but I believe the sludge contains a mild sulfuric acid or maybe lye. The sludge ponds contain fly ash from the burnt coal. I don't think I would drink it even after boiling it, but some old timers could use it for making lye soap.

rikki's picture

Boiling water does seem like

Boiling water does seem like strange advice. Did they say who these residents are who should be doing this? The failure seems to be downstream of any likely water intake, except that the rupture looks like it happened on the uphill side of the retention pond, and the sludge actually flowed up a length of Swan Pond Creek. It may be that the force of the water and ash caused local seismic events that muddied well water, but not necessarily with sludge.

Anyway, this is a serious mess. It completely buried the mouth of Swan Pond Creek and polluted the last stretch of the Emory River where it is inundated behind Watts Bar Dam. Swan Pond Creek could potentially back up when it next rains, and if it does not, it will be transporting more ash into Watts Bar Lake. That impoundment already collects silt from Oak Ridge, so it's hardly pristine to begin with.

That retention pond seems awfully large, like it may have outgrown its capacity. The sludge was likely saturated from the recent rains, then freezing caused the exposed earthen bank to crust up and wick water toward it, and the expansion weakened it, setting the stage for a crack to become catastrophe. I wonder whether TVA expanded the pond instead of dredging it and transporting ash off site.

Rachel's picture

Boiling water does seem like

Boiling water does seem like strange advice. Did they say who these residents are who should be doing this?

I believe the reference was to folks in the area with well water. I didn't really understand it either.

R. Neal's picture

Some more info posted over

Some more info posted over at RoaneViews that might provide a clue re. the water situation:

Mayor and Council:

Roane Central’s lines are not impacted. I called Bob Creswell to see if Roane Central could expedite construction of the pressure water line which they are constructing. He has called the engineer, and we are told that construction will take about 10 days. This will be the fastest way for customers to obtain water service.

Swan Pond Road along with the railroad are completely inundated with about six feet of mud and ash. The gravity water line, Harriman’s wastewater plant effluent line, telephone, gas and electric are all gone. The embayment area of the lake is filled up with ash and mud. Several houses have no access. I assume TVA will try to place transportation back into service as quickly as possible in order to keep the plant operating and provide access to residents. Restoration of other services could take several weeks.

We normally get about 30 percent of our water from the spring. As you know we maintain enough plant capacity to carry the demand if we were to lose the spring, but treating the spring water is much less expensive than treating river water. I would expect that TVA will repair the gravity line, but it make take several weeks.

Jim [Pinkerton - City Manager]

If I read some of the other comments correctly, some people are using untreated spring water and well water.

This still doesn't explain the "boil your water" advice or where it's coming from.

Michael Grider's picture

Our newsroom got a call from

Our newsroom got a call from Roane County EMA (I think) last night around 7:15. They asked us to get the word out that anyone who gets their water from the gravity-fed spring in the Swan Pond area should boil their water until further notice. When asked if the sewage had ruptured and contaminated the drinking water, EMA said it's not about the sewage, but rather out of concern for the chemicals in the ash mixture (See Randy's earlier post with link to info about ash).

Earlier in the day Monday, TVA CEO Tom Kilgore said in a news conference that there was concern about the level of chemicals in the sludge and that TVA will be testing the water in a nearby river where there is a water intake site.

So, suffice it to say that TVA admits that there are chemicals of concern in the mixture, and the water should be boiled because there are people who get their water from a spring in the area that may be contaminated or at risk of contamination.

Clear as mud?

R. Neal's picture

Thanks for that info,

Thanks for that info, Michael. If there are concerns about toxins, then boiling water won't do anything except make it worse. You could probably find someone over at UT to explain that to your viewers (and to TVA and public officials).

R. Neal's picture

I see WBIR is also advising

I see WBIR is also advising people to boil their water. From the dead fish report mentioned in another post:

Kingston City Manager James Pinkerton says the city's water system remains safe and in good condition. While one water intake, a spring, was covered with ash during the ashslide, he does not expect any problems with supply or contamination.

Residents with wells in the area are being advised to boil their water before drinking it, however.

Ragsdale2010's picture

This is what happens to media when they just rewrite pressers

and other spin sheets from the phalanx of spin shops and pr flacks in our community, they get all dumbed down and their idea of newsgathering is calling a spokesperson for comment.

Why does no one bother to contact people who are familiar with the construction and monitoring of earthen dams, the Army Corp. of Engineers would be a good start, they took a butt whipping in Katrina and they know what causes water to burst through all types of materials. Also, EPA and TDEC would have a comment on fly ash and what it is and what its properties are and any assorted dangers which may flow from it, why would it be kept in a water pond anyway?

TVA owns or manages most of the waterways being polluted by the Ash such that it's probably not newsgathering to continue to stick a mike in the face of Gil Francis or any of the rest of the TVA honchos, even if they will speak.

Wonder if the same guys monitoring the earthen dams are the guys monitoring radiation levels at the TVA nuclear facilities.

rikki's picture

why would it be kept in a

why would it be kept in a water pond anyway?

It's probably more accurate to think of it as an evaporation pond. Take a look at the aerial video TVA released. It's 12 minutes long and worth a hell of a lot more than what has come out of Gil Francis' mouth. You can see the solid bank of ash left behind by the collapse and get a fair idea of how that retention area worked. They probably slurry the ash to control dust then let it air dry.

TVA is now saying it was an 80-acre basin that held 2.6 million cubic yards of ash and was one of three on site. Comparing the video with the low-res satellite image at Google Maps makes me wonder whether an upper pond collapsed into a lower pond, which then collapsed into the inundated mouth of Swan Pond Creek, but I'm speculating based on before/after images with the before image being lousy and undated.

Andy Axel's picture

Past is

Past is prelude:





There'll be a lot of denials of harm until the eventual fines and settlements are reached.


Dirty deeds done dirt cheap! Special holidays, Sundays and rates!

Andy Axel's picture

Remember a corporation is a

Remember a corporation is a person.

Yuh huh. And TVA counts on that very fact, given the behavior of their peers/suppliers... (link...)

In 1969 the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Law outlawed coal impoundments that were designed like the Buffalo Creek dam. Court cases indicated that Pittston Coal and state agencies were aware of the Wales report and the risk factors associated with the coal-refuse dam.

A federal Bureau of Mines report following the flood indicated “the dams were not designed or engineered on the basis of a thorough knowledge of the engineering properties of coal processing refuse.” Although the dams were supposed to be inspected every two weeks, they were not.

Jack Spadaro, who investigated the Buffalo Creek disaster for West Virginia, concluded that the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey had received repeated warnings of the hazards of the dam at the head of Buffalo Creek prior to the flood. Three commissions studying the disaster, federal, state and citizen, concluded that Pittston had blatantly disregarded standard safety practices.

The Citizens' Commission concluded, “officials of the Buffalo Creek-Pittston Company are guilty of murdering at least 124 men, women and children living in the Buffalo Creek Hollow. “ The report indicated that the dam had failed previously. Although Pittston Coal and the state agencies were aware of the failure risks of the refuse dams, there was no action taken to prevent the accident.

In 1974, the Washington law firm, Arnold and Porter, won a $13.5 million settlement, less attorney fees, from Pittston for 600 survivors. In 1978, another 1,200 survivors, including many children, won $4.88 million. The payoff was about $2,700 per person. Pittston's insurance paid most of the settlement. Gov. Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement from Pittston as a complete payment for the state government's loss in the disaster, leaving West Virginia taxpayers with the $13 million unpaid costs.

No criminal charges were brought against the Buffalo mining executives for the creation of the illegal, makeshift, unstable refuse mine. Oval Damron, then Logan [County, WV] prosecutor, said that Pittston's failure to receive a state dam license was merely a misdemeanor and that the one-year statute of limitations for prosecutions had lapsed. He concluded that Buffalo Creek Mining could not be charged with negligent homicide because “there was no way to put a corporation in jail.”


Dirty deeds done dirt cheap! Special holidays, Sundays and rates!

R. Neal's picture

Those are all coal slurry

Those are all coal slurry disasters, right? Those seem to occur more often that containment pond breaches at power plants. They are probably even less regulated, coming under the Office of Surface Mining regulation or some other even worse sold-out agency.

Not sure which is worse - coal slurry or fly ash sludge. I'm still trying to find an example of a fly ash containment pond failure, what damage it caused, the cleanup involved, etc.

Can't find one yet, but I'm still looking.

Regardless, those are previews of the policy and legal battles that will play out over the next few years.

Andy Axel's picture

Those are all coal slurry

Those are all coal slurry disasters, right? Those seem to occur more often that containment pond breaches at power plants. They are probably even less regulated, coming under the Office of Surface Mining regulation or some other even worse sold-out agency.

Sure. But in both instances, you take bulk solid contaminants of similar composition, add water, sluice them into a pit, and thereby "manage" the tailings. How TVA could fail to draw the parallel would be breathtakingly irresponsible.

(Ash is probably worse; the unusable gunk left over after combustion is probably more concentrated - all that usable and stable carbon having been incinerated - and friable than the raw stuff.)


Dirty deeds done dirt cheap! Special holidays, Sundays and rates!

rikki's picture

Ash is probably worse You

Ash is probably worse

You are comparing ash to coal. Sludge at mine sites is something else entirely. Tailings and spoil are mostly the rock surrounding the coal seam that had to be worked through to get at the coal, plus coal residues too fine to be useful. Pulverized rock can be quite acidic when mixed with water.

At metal mines, spoil ponds often contain solvents used to separate ore from rock, so they can contain seriously corrosive stuff. I think coal mining is more of a physical than chemical process, however, so coal slurry is probably less toxic than slurry from other types of mines. Still, I'm thinking it is worse than ash.

Arsenic and selenium and nickel are fairly inert and only problematic in high concentrations. The immediate impacts of an ash slide versus a mine waste slide are comparable, but the mine waste probably keeps polluting for a lot longer.

Anonymously Nine's picture

Drink the Water?

I wouldn't drink that water even if it was boiled. This is insane. Some agency should bring safe water to these people. Some agency should test the water today and let the people know what is in it.

Makes NRR look small time.

Andy Axel's picture

Boiling water would only

Boiling water would only reduce biological agents - microorganisms. Does nothing to reduce heavy metal contamination, dissolved solids, etc.

Reverse osmosis or activated carbon would be more effective reductors of these agents, in case anyone is interested. But those are expensive and TVA wouldn't want to have to admit anything looking like "fault."


Dirty deeds done dirt cheap! Special holidays, Sundays and rates!

gonzone's picture


Proper distillation would work.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Hunter S. Thompson

rikki's picture

But those are expensive and

But those are expensive and TVA wouldn't want to have to admit anything looking like "fault."

This reminds me of the Coster Shop dumping fiasco. The TDEC folks were explaining all the various solvents and metals that had been detected in well water, stuff you obviously shouldn't drink if you know what it is, but when it came to simple facts in simple language -- can we drink our water? -- City Attorney Michael Kelley stepped in to obfuscate, call the results preliminary and insist that no certain proof that the water was harmful existed. It was obvious that his main concern was saving the city the expense of providing water to the impacted population (who lived outside city limits).

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