HARRIMAN, Tenn. -- Two years ago today, Harriman cattle farmer Terry Gupton and his wife, Sandy, woke up to a nightmare that in months to come would only intensify around them and their neighbors.
Just after midnight on a freezing cold night, the dike wall of a slushy coal ash landfill ruptured and unleashed a tsunami of gray muck into the Emory River and the Swan Pond community.
As ash clogged the cove, polluted water rose over much of the Guptons' crop and grazing land. Gupton, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture agent, was afraid to graze or water his cattle or raise vegetables in the spill's aftermath.
A half-mile away, Crystell Flinn's house -- across the river cove from the ruptured ash pond -- was shoved off its foundation and pushed across Swan Pond Road into an embankment. Her husband, home alone at the time, was saved from a falling ceiling by the four posts on his bed.
On that Dec. 22, 2008, night, 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic-laden ash waste from TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant spread over 300 acres and the Emory River. In some ways, the total impact of the spill still isn't clear -- either locally or nationally.
W. Troy Beets, the mayor of Kingston, Tenn., speaks about how his city plans on using the $5 million from TVA to expand the wastewater treatment plant, doubling its capacity.Staff Photo by Dan Henry
"One of the worse things about the situation was that you're so psychologically affected," said Gupton, who with his wife finally moved away last June from their home of decades.
"We're just glad to be somewhere else. We bought another farm in Crossville, and we're rebuilding," he said. "We felt from the first that our health was affected, and that's still a question for the future. For now we're proud to be rebuilding and getting on with our life."
Sarah McCoin, a benefits analyst and still a Swan Pond resident on property that's been in her family for nine or 10 generations, echoed Gupton's health and psychological concerns.
"It's a really a dreadful situation that you try to make the best of," she said. "The ash is not gone. It's just sculpted."
What has changed
Steve McCracken, Tennessee Valley Authority's general manager for the Kingston ash recovery project who has been marshaling the cleanup in Harriman for about a year, said he's surprised and pleased that work has moved so quickly.
But there's still about three years of work to go, he is quick to add.
Just under half of the spilled ash, about 2 million cubic yards, still chokes what used to be two river coves of Swan Pond -- the area that became the signature photos of the spill two years ago.
TVA estimates the cleanup will cost as much as $1.2 billion -- the equivalent of 69 cents more each month from every man woman and child in the utility's seven-state coverage area for the next 15 years.
Since the spill, TVA has dredged 3.5 million cubic yards of ash and sediment from the main stem of the Emory River. The last train shipment of that ash left about a month ago for Perry County, Ala., bound for a landfill there.
TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the utility has spent $47 million to purchase 174 properties affected by the spill, and the utility has pledged $43 million in reparations money to the local municipalities and Roane County.
McCracken said TVA officials haven't decided yet what to do with the 174 properties and empty homes it now owns.
"They may be razed and this area be made a natural area," he said.
Some may be offered for resale, Martocci said.
Although nearly 90 lawsuits have been dropped or dismissed since the spill, about 55 complaints remain in the U.S. District Court in Knoxville, according to court documents. Most are expected to be heard in late 2011.
TVA also has paid for or partnered in health studies that indicate there have been no adverse health effects, but even officials involved in the studies have said there may not be enough data to know with certainty.
What's to come?
Craig Zeller, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ash cleanup project manager, expects TVA contractors to begin rebuilding the failed wall of the ash pond in February.
When the new wall is complete, TVA plans to move the remaining spilled ash back into that landfill, then seal it.
TVA's board last year approved a resolution to spend up to $2 billion to convert all of its ash and gypsum ponds from wet storage to dry storage within eight to 10 years. The goal, they said, is to have the safest and most thoroughly inspected impoundments in the industry.
Local leaders acknowledge that TVA has made progress with the cleanup and reparations, but they are divided on whether the community can ever be "made whole."
Kingston Mayor Troy Beets is optimistic.
"We'll get $5 million to expand this sewage treatment plant," he said, motioning to the city's small existing plant. "When it's done, it will double our capacity and allow us to grow and attract industry."
Roane County Commissioner Randy Ellis, who grew up in Swan Pond, is less upbeat.
"I think we still have a long time to go to overcome the stigma" of a polluted community, he said. "I don't think TVA will ever be able to make us 100 percent whole."
Martocci said TVA's reparation pledges to local governments also include $1.9 million to pay for the renovation of Harriman's Princess Theater and $32 million for Roane County schools.
Ellis said TVA took "the cheap way out" in designing and maintaining the waste system for the Kingston plant. Now, reparations aside, the utility must work long and hard to rebuild the community's trust, he said.
A national legacy
The spill's national legacy also is still playing out.
The disaster -- so dubbed by TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore when he spoke to a high school gymnasium full of angry people three days after the spill -- ignited calls for the EPA and Congress to better police the 431 ash ponds across the nation.
The ash contains toxic elements such as arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium. But it is regulated as non-hazardous waste.
Power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the ash each year. About 43 percent is recycled into products such as cement or drywall, but the rest is dumped into open landfill pits -- most unlined -- such as the one that collapsed in Harriman.
In October 2009, EPA issued a proposed rule that would designate the ash as hazardous waste that needed special handling to be regulated at the federal level. But when the rule was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget seven months later, there were two potential new rules.
One would designate coal ash as special waste under federal oversight, while the other would allow power plants to continue treating it as nonhazardous and leave regulation largely to individual states.
Since then, EPA has received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, but has not announced a decision.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...