Study: Wet or dry, coal ash spill residue is dangerous

By: Gordon Boyd Email
By: Gordon Boyd Email

Nine days after the massive spill at TVA's Kingston
Steam Plant in Harriman, the coal ash was still so saturated that
Governor Phil Bredesen cradled it bare-handed.

"I don't think people should be scared of this stuff, " the Governor said New Year's Eve.

"It IS going to contain lead, and arsenic."

A study by Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment concludes the ash also contains more than trace elements of mercury and radium too.

All four elements have been linked to a raised risk of cancer of the bladder, liver and lungs.

"We live right by the lake in Anchor Park," says Farragut resident Kachelle O'Connor.

"That's one of my main concerns, is the water."

The Tennessee Valley Authority has thousands of cubic feet of coal ash to dredge from the Emory RIver.

It has halted such dredging periodically, over concerns of flooding
and potential risks to fish and aquatic life.

Duke's study finds that levels of arsenic and mercury risk poisoning the river's fish, but another of its findings is of greater worry to West Knoxville resident Dawn Contraras.

Specifically, the study concludes that warmer months could
dry out the ash residue remaining on land, forcing it into the atmosphere to flow with the winds.

"Just from that wind, the air pollution, the water pollution -- it'll
spread throughout East Tennessee," Contraras says.

"The conclusions that are around the amount of metals that are in the ash, I think those are correct," says Dr. Joe Hoagland, TVA's Vice President for Environmental Science and Policy.

"The conclusions that he's drawn around the mercury, I'm not sure whether they're correct or not."

Dr. Hoagland says that claims of mercury leeching into river sediment, don't factor in what he calls the "heritage deposits" of mercury from activities at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"We're involved in any number of programs to minimize any (coal ash dust) that may have been blown up, " Dr. Hoagland says.

"We're putting in a fertilizer and seed mixture to get grass to grow atop the ash piles to keep it from moving until we can do something to take it out."

TVA has not decided which disposal facility will house the spilled ash, nor how to take it there.

Contraras is skeptical.

"We'll definitely have to wait and see what they say, but I'm prepared for the usual East Tennessee precautions," she says.

"Our goal is to get this cleaned up right," Dr. Hoagland says.

"So if there's somthing we're missing that we need to take account of, then we'll do that."

Duke University's study is published in the academic journal Environmental Science and Technology. It is available on-line, by subscription, for $30 at


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