9 Investigates: Safety concerns follow coal ash spill

by: Jim Bradley Updated:


HARRIMAN, Tenn. - Friday marks three months that crews have spent trying to clean up the massive coal ash spill at the Dan River.
North Carolina's treasurer called on Duke Energy to conduct an outside investigation into what caused the spill. On Thursday, protestors angry about the disaster crowded outside Duke Energy's annual shareholders meeting.
As cleanup efforts continue, critics are asking about the long-term effects.
Just outside Knoxville, Tennessee, Harriman is a picture-postcard town where water and wildlife all share a toxic legacy.
In December 2008, a huge coal ash landfill next to the Kingston Steam plant failed sending an avalanche of debris cascading into the river.  It destroyed homes and left some residents still shaken today.
“It scares me to death and it’s a wonder that me or a bunch of people hadn't been killed,” said resident Tommy Charles.
Charles, who  has lived for 50 years in the shadow of the Kingston Plant,  woke that day to find his waterfront property fouled.
“(It) left this grayish, black sludge all over here on the dirt,” he said.
Environmental groups paddled through that sludge shortly after and continue to insist the leftovers of mercury, arsenic and other chemicals in the ash constitute an ongoing danger to the community.
“Coal ash is like the who's who of the periodic table.  It has all types of heavy metals that are in concentrated form that can cause damage to the human nervous system,” said Stephen Smith with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
So over the last five years, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the power company that runs the Kingston Plant, has spent more than a billion dollars cleaning it up.
TVA executive Bob Deacy is overseeing the massive effort that involved dredging the river and ultimately putting most of the ash right back where it was and this time, circled by a 50-foot deep concrete wall.
Channel 9 had to get special permission to be allowed in the middle of the 240-acre site.  Beneath all the fabric is 20 million tons of coal ash from the Harriman spill.  By the end of the year, though, TVA says it will look like a big grassy field.
Workers are in the final stages of capping the site with plastic, soil and grass which TVA said will keep any coal ash toxins from harming the river or residents.
Yet in Harriman, there are still questions.
“I wouldn't eat anything out of the river now,” resident Steve Ellis said.
Ellis and his family grew up here before selling their 20 acres to TVA after the spill.
“They just cleaned it up and sowed grass, tore houses down, bought people out and got it looking (nice). But don't know what's under it,” he said.
To look at the area now, you’d never know it was the site of the biggest coal ash spill in U.S. history.
TVA officials said it has tested the water and soil and the Environmental Protection Agency said it's looked at fish and wildlife.
“We measured all that stuff for coal ash-related constituents and we just didn’t see the big accumulation.  We didn’t see an impact to fish reproduction. Birds were fine. Everything really checked out good,” said Craig Zeller with the EPA.
Yet, for all the ways Harriman has been built back, it is also permanently changed.
TVA bought 180 properties. Only Charles remains on his street. He’s 75 years old but still tied to his land.
“It's kind of like home.  I just couldn't leave,” he said, choking up.
Neither, it seems, can controversy over the spill's long-term impact.
“We're going to continue to study and monitor it and if we do see a problem we're going to immediately address it,” Deacy said.
However, Ellis said he doesn’t believe them.
“I don’t trust them,” he said.
Distrust and disagreement have lingered now for five years in Tennessee, and almost certainly await North Carolina as well.