December 27, 2008 in Nation/World

Coal ash spill worse than first estimated

Threat to water, presence of harmful metals feared
By KRISTIN M. HALL Associated Press
 

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 fear the muck coating their neighborhood is endangering the area’s drinking water.

The state, however, said Friday that tests show water entering the local treatment plant is safe.

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.

Moulton could not explain the discrepancy but said TVA’s first tests 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.”

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.

The results of water sampling downstream from the plant indicated the concentrations of toxic contaminants were less than what state standards deem harmful to fish and aquatic life, TVA said in a news release Thursday.

Friday evening, the state Department of Environment and Conservation said samples taken around the local water treatment plant show water entering the facility meets public health standards.

A department news release said elevated contaminant levels were present in the immediate area of the spill, but not in the area of any drinking water intake for Kingston Water Treatment Plant.

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 will 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.”

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.”

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