Utility Doubles Estimate of Tennessee Ash Deluge

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The Associated Press

Utility Doubles Estimate of Tennessee Ash Deluge

by
Kristin M. Hall

The aftermath of a retention wall collapse is seen, Monday, Dec. 22, 2008, in Harriman, Tenn. A retention pond wall collapsed early Monday morning at a power plant run by the nation's largest public utility, releasing a frigid mix of water and ash that flooded 15 homes nearby. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, J. Miles Cary)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A burst dike at a coal-fired power plant
in eastern Tennessee spilled millions more cubic yards of ash than
originally estimated, officials said Friday, and residents feared the
muck coating their neighborhood was endangering the area's drinking water.

About 5.4 million cubic yards
of coal fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, broke out of a retention
pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman
John Moulton said.

The TVA, which as
the nation's largest utility company supplies electricity to 8.8
million people, first estimated that Monday's breach had spilled less
than half that amount.

State
environmental officials said Friday that their tests found the ash had
not caused any problems near the intake for the local water treatment plant.

Moulton
said TVA's first tests also showed no threat to the area's drinking
water. The spill damaged 12 homes and covered 300 acres with sludge in
Harriman, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.

"We
are cleaning it up," he said. "That's where our efforts are focused and
we are making some headway. Both on land and in the water, we are
containing it and skimming it off the water."

State officials were also trying to stem the flow of the ash by building a submerged dam, or weir, across the channel of the Emory River to allow water to flow while catching the ash at the bottom.

Christopher
Copeland, a resident whose land is covered in ash and debris, said he
is not drinking the local water and is keeping his children inside
until he can send them to a relative's house, "because I don't feel
comfortable with them around here."

TVA
"has done nothing to address our issues," Copeland said by phone Friday
from his home on a road partially closed because of the spill.

Environmental activist groups said this week they also worry about the danger to drinking water.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman has said some toxic metals could be in the muck, including mercury and arsenic, but EPA tests were not finished. Dead fish
were seen floating downstream, but the TVA said that could have been
caused by freezing temperatures that may have contributed to the dike
bursting.

State environmental officials
found elevated contaminant levels in the immediate area of the spill,
but not in the area of the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment
Plant. The state reviewed samples taken by itself, the TVA and the EPA.

The
state found there was no immediate risk from contact with the ash, as
long as it wasn't eaten, according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. But it was too early to speculate on the ash's long-term effects.

Environmentalists
and the coal industry have argued for years over whether coal ash
should be regulated as hazardous waste, which would make it subject to
more stringent regulations.

In 2000,
the EPA backed away from labeling it a hazardous waste but encouraged
states to strengthen their regulations. Rick Hind, Greenpeace legislative director, said his group would ask President-elect Barack Obama's administration to renew efforts to regulate coal ash.

Greenpeace,
an environmental activist group, is also asking for a criminal
investigation into the failure of the pond and whether TVA could have
prevented the spill. The pond is used for dumping waste from burning
coal at the steam plant.

Hind said the new ash spill estimate shows the TVA doesn't know what is going on.

"In
this case, locating it on a hill like this was probably the most
foolish plan," he said. "This was so large and out of control that it
took out everything in its path."

Copeland's house was not damaged, but his neighbor's was
destroyed. Copeland is also keeping a watchful eye on a nearby cove
that he says is normally 8 feet deep with water. He estimates it's now
up to 16 feet and looks like it will overflow, probably into his house.

Hundreds of coal-fired plants across the country generate
combustion byproducts, including ash. About 40 percent of that material
is reused by mixing it with concrete or turning it into fill for
highways or embankments, said David Goss, executive director of the
American Coal Ash Association.

"But it does contain trace amounts of heavy metals, which was
found in the coal," Goss said. "The concentrations are relatively
small, but if you're talking about a million tons of ash, then you're
going to measure the total of those constituents in the thousands of
pounds."

Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.


Associated Press Writer Juanita Cousins contributed to this report.

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