NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Authorities need to more
strongly warn residents that muck left from a major coal-ash spill in
eastern Tennessee could pose health risks, a southern environmental
group said Saturday.
The Tennessee Department
of Environment and Conservation said Friday that the mixture of coal
fly ash and water coating a neighborhood near the Kingston Fossil Plant
didn't pose an immediate risk to residents unless they ingested it.
Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean
Energy, said officials should more strongly encourage residents to
avoid the sludge that surrounds their homes.
5.4 million cubic yards - more than a billion gallons - of coal fly
ash, a byproduct of burning coal, broke out of a retention pond Monday
at the Kingston Fossil Plant, flooding nearby houses, the Tennessee
Valley Authority said. The spill damaged 12 homes and covered 300 acres
with sludge in Harriman, about 35 miles west of Knoxville.
said his group is not trying to create panic, but that federal and
state authorities and the TVA should be erring on the side of caution
in what he considers the largest coal-ash spill in the eastern U.S.
"I think all three agencies have been irresponsible in not accurately warning citizens," Smith said.
Martocci, a spokeswoman for TVA, the nation's largest utility, said
Saturday that while the company has not issued an official warning not
to come in contact with the ash, she encouraged people to avoid the
"If they do touch it, they should wash their hands," she said.
The safety of drinking water also is a concern to residents and environmentalists.
contaminant levels were found in water samples in the immediate area of
the spill, including lead and thallium, but TVA said those chemicals
are filtered out through the normal water treatment process.
sample data from the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment Plant,
which supplies drinking water to residents, showed slight elevations in
iron and manganese concentrations, but they were still within drinking
water standards, TVA said.
TVA also said
Saturday that the residue floating on top of the water was caused by
cenospheres, a sand-like material that is being skimmed off the surface
and sucked up by a flat barge.
continuing to take samples to determine what is there and the drinking
water still meets all the standards set by the EPA," Martocci said.
the agencies have not yet released details on the toxicity of the ash
itself, which could contain heavy metals including mercury and arsenic,
according to the EPA.
Other spills such as a
pond break in Kentucky in 2000 dumped about 250 million gallons of coal
slurry into nearby creeks were much smaller than this one, Smith said.
TVA issues a statement that the drinking water is safe, that this
material is inert ... it leads the community to believe that there's
really no problem," Smith said. "That is absolutely not true."
said cleanup was continuing through the weekend and that crews had made
progress clearing 1,000 feet of a local road that had been covered by
the ash slide. TVA officials have said six inches of rain in 10 days
and overnight temperatures in the teens contributed to the rupture of
the dike on the retention pond.
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. The power plant is
along the Emory River, which joins the Clinch River and flows into the
main Tennessee River.
The retention pond was
one of a series of holding areas where ash generated by one of TVA's 11
coal-fired plants was dried until it could be buried or recycled for
road beds and concrete. The ash piles at times reached 55 feet above
Environmentalists and the coal
industry have argued for years over whether coal ash should be
classified as hazardous waste, which would make it subject to more
stringent regulations. In 2000, the EPA backed away from labeling it
hazardous but encouraged states to strengthen their regulations.
an environmental activist group, is asking for a criminal investigation
into the failure of the pond and whether TVA could have prevented the
Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.