In the hill country of eastern Tennessee, residents of the town of Kingston are surveying the vast spread of wet coal ash that swamped a dozen homes and hundreds of acres in their community on Monday.
The 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge, waste from the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-burning Kingston Fossil Plant, spilled out of an earth dam, and work crews are still struggling with the mess.
Near the site of the spill, big yellow earth movers, back hoes and dump trucks are busy as the workers try to move millions of pounds of soggy ash back to the artificial mountain it came from. The ash coats half a square mile, up to 12 feet deep in some places.
Roads are blocked, as are the train tracks that bring coal to the power facility that serves nearly 700,000 people. The plant is still running, though at a reduced capacity, and plant manager Ronald Hall says there's enough coal to last 30 to 50 days.
"We're not that concerned with coal right now," Hall says. "We're concerned with the impacts to the community and being able to have access to the other areas, so we can work with our equipment to get it cleaned up."
The Tennessee Valley Authority's environmental executive, Anda Ray, says tests of sludge and area drinking water supplies show that the massive spill isn't threatening human health, though there are concerns about what happens when the ash dries out and could become airborne. For now, Ray says there are other things for residents to worry about.
"Their issues are getting their lives back to normal," Ray says. "'Am I going to get my aesthetics back? Is my property value going to go down? Do I have a health situation?' So those are the areas that we're putting as No. 1 priority to address."
'This Is Just Sad'
Tom and Wendy Vereb recently put their home on Lakeshore Drive up for sale. The house backed up to a lovely little cove and had a water view out front, too. Wendy Vereb says there was even an interested buyer.
"She was definitely going to come," she says. "She was interested, and I can't see that happening anymore. I think that she's not going to come and say, 'Oh, this is the place I want to be,' because it's not the place Tom and I want to be right now. This is just sad. It's very sad."
The couple's house now backs up on an almost solid lake of ashy muck. Tom Vereb says it makes him think of the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens eruption, with uprooted trees poking out of the sludge. The couple won't let their dogs play outside anymore because they just don't know how hazardous the ash might be. They are not entirely reassured by word from the TVA that the sludge isn't toxic.
"You read in the papers that there's all kinds of dangerous materials in this stuff," Tom Vereb says. "It's hard to say. You know, we don't know if it is or not. But we definitely know that it isn't a beautiful, serene water setting anymore."
For many in the environmental community long opposed to coal-burning power plants, this spill is a form of validation. Someone has posted handwritten signs all over the affected area that say, "Clean Coal?"
Chandra Taylor, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says her organization called for a ban on the type of ash storage used at the Kingston facility even before the spill.
"This kind of showed us all at once that kind of catastrophe can occur, but we need to be concerned over the course of time," Taylor says.
On the ground in Tennessee, environmental officials are trying to make sure that the ash doesn't spread into more waterways.
"This is manageable," says Paul Sloan, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. "We think it is manageable. We think that in terms of human health, we have made immediate assessment of the intakes for water supply. We're comfortable that we're OK there now. From what I would call a chronic perspective, having this ash on this landscape for long periods of time — that will be something that we will be looking at and will be dealing with it."
Regardless of human health effects, or even whether the ash is toxic or not, there's no question this spill is a mess of massive proportions.