December 28, 2008 in Nation/World

Risks posed by ash spill understated, group warns

By KRISTIN M. HALL Associated Press

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.

But 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.

About 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.

Smith 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.

Barbara 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 area.

“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.

“We are continuing to take samples to determine what is there and the drinking water still meets all the standards set by the EPA,” Martocci said.

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