KINGSTON, Tenn. – The CEO and president of the nation's largest public utility vowed to clean up a community encased in sludge after a major coal ash spill, where many residents fear toxic elements could seep into their drinking water.
Sandy Dickman, whose land remains covered by several feet of gray muck, said he doesn't think he'll be drinking the water. And he dreaded what might happen after the mire dries out and could become airborne, despite the utility's promise to test air quality and local wells.
"It will look like a blizzard in the Arctic," said Dickman, who moved to the area in 1975 and said he always suspected such a flood could happen. Tennessee Valley Authority head Tom Kilgore fielded questions from more than 200 residents at a meeting Sunday — people like Dickman, worried about everything from property values to livestock that could ingest contaminated water or grass.
Some carried anti-coal industry signs, including one that said "Clean Coal is a myth."
Officials at the utility have said the water is safe to drink after a neighborhood flooded Dec. 22 with more than a billion gallons of water and fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal. The spill coated 300 acres after a dike burst at a retention pond used to store the ash at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, about 35 miles west of Knoxville. Some also was dumped into the Emory River.
"This is not a time when TVA holds its head high. I'm here to say we are going to clean it up and we are going to clean it up right," Kilgore said. He said TVA would pay for the water and air tests, but could not say how long cleanup would take.
The Environmental Protection Agency also said in a press release Sunday that people should be safe unless they drink untreated river water. The EPA found elevated levels of arsenic in some surface water, but said the poison was not detected in samples taken near the intake for the Kingston Water Treatment Plant, which supplies drinking water.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has also said elevated contaminant levels were found in water samples in the immediate area of the spill, but not around the plant's intake.
Three homes were destroyed and 42 property owners had damage of some kind, according to Roane County emergency management officials.
Crystell Flinn's home was among those destroyed by the ash slide, her belongings swept away only three days before Christmas. Now, she and her family are living in a hotel paid for by TVA. Kilgore said the utility was providing for the short-term needs of three families, but Flinn said there is nothing to return to.
"It looks like a tsunami," Flinn said. "It's not like they can scoop it up and scrape it off."
Kilgore was asked again Sunday what caused the dike to fail. He said TVA is still investigating, but utility officials have said cold weather and above-normal rains were contributing factors.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said Saturday that authorities should more strongly warn residents that muck from the spill could pose health risks.
Knoxville-based TVA supplies electricity to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.