Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Please be Thoughtful About the TVA Ash Spill

Headlines that start with hyperbole (Radioactive![Not] Much Worse than Thought![Not]) are as misleading and as wrong as the local Chamber of Commerce saying "There's no problem here."

There is a sorry trail of lax oversight, poor management, and misplaced compensation incentives from the TVA Board over many years that led to this disaster. The blame for this event can be laid squarely at the feet of TVA's corporate mindset, the anti-environment Bush Administration, his appointed TVA Directors, and also, everyone who has ever flipped a light switch into the ON position.

Hysteria may serve a radical agenda but it won't help the community directly affected by this nor will it serve the people on the ground working to make sure this thing gets all the attention it deserves and gets properly re-mediated. Nor does it serve those of us who are working hard to lay the ground work for a healthy and viable community going forward. The TVA Ash Spill is a disaster, a big damned mess, and has health considerations all its own. In addition to the environmental damage caused by mining and burning coal for energy, there is the unpaid economic damage of Coal energy, from cradle to grave. We lose the ears of those we need when we exaggerate.

Publishing a water quality analysis from water dipped out of the soup at ground zero and then screaming about it containing 300 times the arsenic levels allowed in treated drinking water is absurd and simply not helpful to the credibility of environmentalists. That would be like screaming that apples contain an unhealthy amount of arsenic. They do, but very few people eat apple seeds in any quantity and very few people are getting their drinking water out of the soup at ground zero. In fact, most of us who live here feel like we have never had such good testing and oversight of our water supply. Even normal water treatment removes every contaminant associated with the ash spill. As of right now with everybody watching, I would bet that our water processing is as good as there is anywhere in the country.

There have been breathless pronouncements that TVA and TDEC have not been truthful with us. In fact, not one incorrect water testing analysis has been published by TVA or TDEC and they are regularly posted publicly. The delays I have run down have turned out to be due to incompetence rather than any malicious intent, and have been corrected quickly. TVA quickly released a map showing the testing locations and has continually posted their results, as has TDEC. The test results have been completely in line with the results published by some environmental groups, regardless of what you may have read.

We've had the expected positioning by politicians, big and small, and lawyers are swarming over our public meetings like rats at the old dump, and some environmental activists (not all) are running around scaring people. Inaccurate information has appeared in nearly every respected news outlet. It needs to stop. Nobody has been able to find an inaccuracy in any of the published test data and there is a ton of it out there. What it shows is that we have a mess...There are hazards...They are manageable...We have to be vigilant...We have to be truthful! We don't have to exaggerate anything to show what a foobar TVA has given us. We have to look into the future toward the greater long term good for our community.

The next couple of years are going to be harder than they needed to be. We are getting hurt economically with depressed property values and tax base, and it is going to be more difficult to attract the right kind of community based businesses to our area. Particularly if they buy into the hysteria and think those apple seeds are going to crawl out of the lake in the middle of the night and get them. Every community has its problems, but thanks to TVA's monumental mess up, we now know what ours are and what we have to do to fix things. The good news is that this mess can be contained, even though it will take time. Roane County Tennessee is a stunningly beautiful area. The people who have come in here to look at the spill can concentrate on the less than one square mile that is for real a disaster, and they can look around at the rest of our area.

Looking around at what is happening, I see good things coming out of this down the road. TVA's corporate practices are getting a white hot light shined on them. I expect their environmental awareness to jump off the scale. Orders for new coal plants are being cancelled across the country. The myth of "clean coal" has been forever exposed for what it is...a plain and simple lie. The coal waste storage practices will change forever. It is going to cost money to clean this up and it's going to cost money to make people whole. Community groups are being formed to insure that this happens. There is a common bond created when people come together to face a mutual disaster.

With all this said, we need to be aggressively vigilant, holding TVA and our officials to the task of setting things as straight as they can ever be. But even though their motivations may be personal rather than altruistic, there's nothing to be gained from stabbing them in the back when they're headed in the direction we want them to go.



On the ground daily information and links can be found at www.RoaneViews.com


  1. Here! Here! I agree. After being at the site and meeting folks that live there, I can see how "over it" they are about environmentalists. Scaring people does not solve the problem. It only distracts them from the solution. That is never a good thing.


  2. Very well said, sir.

  3. Very level-headed and wisely balanced. WhitesCreek--I'm the editor of OnEarth's citizen journalism platform, Greenlight. (www.onearth.org/greenlight). I very much appreciate your level tone and thoughtful consideration, and think it would be a great voice to add to our chorus of coverage of the TVA spill. Please drop me a line if you're at all interested in re-publishing some of your work on our website.

    (I also tried sending you a private message on the RoaneViews site, but am not sure exactly how that works!)

    Hope to hear from you, and keep up the great reporting!
    Ben Jervey

  4. Whites Creek,

    I'm not familiar with the detailed history since the disaster -- who has said what, been inaccurate, etc.. I'm writing to ask whether this post is referring to to the Appalachian Voices study referred to in today's NYTimes to be subpar or hysterical? This study appears to avoid some of the missteps you mention, eg, it samples water both at the breach site and a mile or two downstream. It was done with help from Appalachian State people (don't know more about them yet), and does find unsafe levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic even in the most distant sampled location. (It also conveys that some substances have no TN safety criteria: cobalt, iron, molybdenum, silver, vanadium.)

    I'm not being critical, just sort of trying to get my bearings about this event.

  5. Wait a second. The EPA found arsenic levels 150 times the safe drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion. And I have not seen any water testing data from TVA at all - all they are releasing is TAP water data from Kingstons intake, which I understand is upstream from the spill. I dont agree with your criticism of the water samples taken and analyzed at Appalachian State University, I watched the entire interview with the scientists who did the actual testing and no one was exagerating anything, they simply reported that the levels that they saw would have a major detrimental effect on aquatic life.

  6. I did not criticize any of the Appy State tests, MJ. Disagree with something I did not do all you want to.

    I did criticize the claim that something that was NOT DRINKING WATER did not meet drinking water standards. That's disingenous and misleading on the face of it.

    The water at the intake of the drinking water facility met the standards even before it was treated, except for one sample. Even that sample date met the standards after treatment.

    I did criticize the hyperbole associated with the public statements of some folks who mean well but aren't helping and who are being disingenuous in trying to depict a lot of folks as bad guys, who are working their hearts out to try and correct a monumental screw up, which they totally admit.

    And what you say about TVA not releasing any of results other than the Kingston intake is absolutely untrue. They are posting EPA results and their own results. This is from the TVA web site:


    It's not pretty but they are totally being honest with us. How about accepting this and working with them instead of trying to make everyone out to be a bad guy?

    We are all in this together. The exaggerations of some in the environmental activist community are giving fodder to those who attack environmentalists as sensationalists. Most of us aren't.

    This event is bad enough without trying to scare people with things that simply aren't relative.