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January 12, 2009

Sierra Club Responds to the TN Coal Ash Spill

We are all saddened by the destruction caused to families and the environment by the Dec. 22 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal ash spill near Harriman, Tenn. We have many Sierra Club staff and volunteers from or living in that general area, and they've told us about the aftermath as well as sent us some shocking photos and video (click on the photos to see the full-size versions).

Emoryrd3LANE - credit Lane Boldman

Lane Boldman, a leader from the Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter of the Sierra Club, visited the area and recently answered some questions for me for another column we produce. I'd like to share her responses, as well as some comments from Sierra Club Coal Team member Lyndsay Moseley, whose parents live near the spill and who visited the site shortly after the spill.

From Lane Boldman:
1- What were your first impressions when saw the spill's aftermath?

I was surprised at the scale. Parts of the ash that had solidified were boulders the size of cars and larger. And there were hundreds of them. I was also surprised at how many sets of booms there were on the river to try to contain the spill even a week after it had happened. I was also surprised to see haz-mat workers who did not have respiratory masks.

Graveyard2LANE - credit Lane Boldman

2- Have you spoken with any of the affected families and residents? If yes, what are some of the reactions and comments you're getting from them?

I spoke to some folks at the local general store and one woman who lives in a house on the water just outside of where they have blocked off the roads. Not a single person I spoke to felt the TVA was being candid, and worse, they felt TVA was incompetent to fix the problems. One woman said that a lot of pets were missing and the TVA told her to check the animal shelter, as though there was no consideration that they might have been swamped in the muck, nor was there concern for their whereabouts.

SwanpondrdLANE - credit Lane Boldman

3- What have people been told so far about what's next for their homes?

A week after the incident, the ones I spoke to they had little information on what they needed to do or not do. All they heard was that TVA would purchase land that was uninhabitable. But details were sketchy. The assumption is that the folks in the blockaded areas may have gotten better info and the ones just beyond that 'hot zone' were being told zip.

One woman I talked to had not been told anything about her shoreline even though she is on the water and very near the spill area. She has a fair bit of wetland area at the edge of her property and she said she was not able to see anything. It was difficult to get there.

P1000581

4- Are there fences or signs or anything telling people to stay away from the sludge?

I saw no signs with any warnings whatsoever, and I went to several areas. I saw no full fences- There were areas that had barrier tape strung up at driveways and roads to block access by car, so it was not easy to drive to any of the sites, and there were also TVA security patrols watching the areas at strategic entrances where the spill was the worst. But if someone wanted to it would not be hard to get to some of the spill areas. It seemed like the main deterrents were the TVA patrol cars. But I saw nothing posted that listed a hazard.

P1000596

From Lyndsay:
The families are experiencing sadness at the losses of their homes, peaceful way of life, health threats. They have concerns for their health, because with a few exceptions, little information about real threats has been shared by the TVA besides comments to have no contact with the ash.

There's also a desire for more media coverage of the incident, residents feel like it's not getting enough attention. There is also an overwhelming desire to give TVA the benefit of the doubt as in "They're doing the best they can at this point."

Residents are also suspicious of outside groups...coming in to "promote their agenda." Others say if TVA doesn't "do right," they will fight for their rights.

The residents are getting mixed signals. The TVA is telling people the water is fine, but the news reported that the schools will be preparing lunches with bottled water and the schools are encouraging parents to send bottled water with their kids.

TVA sludge - credit Dave Cooper
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The Sierra Club is heavily involved in the aftermath of this environmental disaster. You can read more about it in the blog of Bruce Nilles, our National Coal Campaign Director, and in this news release. And if you've not yet had a chance to see the video from the ash spill - check out this YouTube channel.

First three photos courtesy of Lane Boldman, second two from Lyndsay Moseley, and final from Dave Cooper

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