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Tennessee Landowners File $165M Suit Over Massive Coal Ash Spill

StoryDecember 31, 2008
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Landowners in Tennessee have filed a $165 million lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority in the wake of last week’s massive spill of over one billion gallons of toxic coal ash next to a coal-burning steam plant. The sludge spilled out of a coal plant retention pond, burying homes and roads. It is believed to be the largest coal ash disaster in US history. The amount of ash released would fill 450,000 standard dump trucks. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Four developers in Tennessee filed a $165 million lawsuit Tuesday against the Tennessee Valley Authority in the wake of last week’s massive spill of over one billion gallons of toxic coal ash next to a coal-burning steam plant. The sludge spilled out of a coal plant retention pond, burying homes and roads. It’s believed to be the largest coal ash disaster in US history. The amount of ash released would fill 450,000 standard dump trucks.

Local residents have criticized the Tennessee Valley Authority and Environmental Protection Agency of failing to disclose what’s in the sludge. The only released test results have focused on the local water supply. Earlier this week, a TVA spokesperson said the tests show elevated levels of lead and thallium in water near the breach. The EPA reported “very high” levels of arsenic were found in a water sample collected from the affected area and that several heavy metals have also been found in quantities “slightly above drinking water standards.”

The sludge has flowed into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water to millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. At a news conference on Tuesday, TVA spokesperson Neil Carriker said there is also a concern the ash could turn into dust and go airborne.

    NEIL CARRIKER: Potential for airborne particulate material is a high concern. The other concern is, as our water sampling has addressed, the potential for contamination of water treatment, water supplies. Our results on the water supply seems to indicate that that’s not going to be a particularly major concern, although we intend to continue monitoring that, and reimbursing the water suppliers for that monitoring, as well. The airborne particulate issue is something that will become a — there will be a greater potential for that as a health concern if we experience prolonged periods of dry weather or if the wind is high. We’re evaluating a number of options right now to prevent airborne fugitive dust emissions from this area.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Neil Carriker, spokesperson for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

We’re joined in Tennessee by Matt Landon, a volunteer with United Mountain Defense, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based environmental group, which has been on the ground at the site of the coal ash spill since last week. Matt Landon was arrested Friday while trying to take photographs of the area.

Matt Landon, tell us the scope of the disaster at this point.

MATT LANDON: Thanks, Amy, for having me on. Just one quick correction: I was not arrested just a few days ago; I was actually just detained for over an hour for taking photographs. But the scope of what’s going on here is so much larger than a lot of the corporate media has been covering. And I just want to thank you guys for covering this issue.

Basically, what we’re dealing with here is a coal ash disaster that has covered anywhere from 200 to 400 acres of land and water, affecting the waterways. We have local residents who, you know, are fearing for the safety of their drinking water and, you know, all the — lots of residents downstream that are fearing for the safety of their drinking water. And, you know, the story is just not getting out there at this point. TVA has not been responsible in the way that they said they have, by going door-to-door and checking on these residents and helping take care of these residents. And, you know, we’re just — we’re concerned.

We’ve had volunteers down here since day one, doing sampling, independent water sampling, and gathering samples of coal ash and any type of samples from wells and surrounding springs. You know, and we’re just — we have those samples going to labs all over the Southeast so that we can independently verify these results. And all of our information is open source. You know, nobody else is providing information about the impacts to the drinking water at this point to the local citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this lawsuit by developers who say their land has now been devalued by what has taken place?

MATT LANDON: Well, I’m getting up to speed on that right now, but, you know, definitely we’ve already spoken with a number of people, that their property values have been drastically impacted. But, you know, our main concern right here, right now is the health and safety of the residents of Roane County and everyone that lives downstream and all the people that live east of here, you know, with prevailing winds. You know, you’re talking about wind gusts — TVA was talking about wind gusts earlier. And today, the wind is blowing anywhere from ten to twenty mile-an-hour gusts. And, you know, this coal ash is beginning to dry out and crack on the edges and, you know, around this disaster site. And there’s no type of safety precautions being provided for the residents in the impacted areas at all.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Matt Landon, who is with United Mountain Defense based in Knoxville, about the largest coal ash spill in history. Can you compare it, for example, to the Exxon Valdez spill, in terms of the scope of this, Matt?

MATT LANDON: Well, I personally wasn’t up working on the Exxon Valdez spill, but one of our volunteers and co-founders of United Mountain Defense did, did work on that spill. And, you know, she’s definitely just been devastated by the size of this destruction and this coal ash disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the public hearings that are being held? What kind of information is getting to the public right now?

MATT LANDON: Well, there was a public meeting, an emergency public meeting of the Kingston City Council that was set up this past Sunday. And basically, they had planned for not that many people to show up. And so, when there was a turnout of over 300 people from the surrounding areas, then we had to move it to a larger venue. There was a lot — there was a fair amount of media coverage. But, you know, basically, TVA started out by saying, you know, TVA — Tom Kilgore was there, the CEO of TVA, and he said TVA cannot hold its head high in this community anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the Tennessee Valley Authority is. How does it work? I’m just looking at a piece about, well, the paychecks of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s top execs, like Tom Kilgore, who just received a bonus of more than $1 million, bringing his total income to about $2.5 million, and on down. Private? Public?

MATT LANDON: To my understanding, the Tennessee Valley Authority was a government-created corporation. It was began back in the ’30s and ’40s to help bring flood control and electric generation and economic development to the Tennessee Valley. You know, as far as Tom Kilgore making a million dollars, I can’t even comprehend a million dollars. I’m a full-time volunteer with Mountain Defense, and, you know, I’ve been volunteering my time down here for the past nine days now, delivering water door-to-door. United Mountain Defense has already given out over 200 gallons of water to residents in the impacted areas, you know, upon their request. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Landon, environmentalists and the coal industry have argued for years about whether coal ash should be classified as hazardous waste, which would make it subject to more stringent regulations. In 2000, the EPA backed away from labeling it hazardous, but encouraged states to strengthen their regulations. What about the toxicity, the arsenic, the thallium, the lead?

MATT LANDON: Well, you can go onto our website at, and we have — there’s information about the toxic release inventories. TVA is required to report those every year. And, you know, there’s up to six million pounds of pollution that they’ve reported out of this one coal-burning power plant for 2007. TVA has eighteen coal-burning power plants, and all of these plants have these coal ash piles. There’s over 400 coal-burning power plants across the country. All of these plants have coal ash piles. And, you know, this stuff is toxic, if you look at their toxic release inventories. It has, you know, 716 pounds of mercury. Three million pounds of hydrochloric acid are released into the air. There’s heavy metals. There’s potentially — there’s radioactive materials. There’s arsenic in there, 44,000 pounds of arsenic released. You know, this is a toxic substance. Basically you’re taking coal, and you’re concentrating it down, and all the bad stuff is getting concentrated in the coal fly ash.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of this for the coal industry in general? At the Democratic convention, there were trucks with the signs “clean coal” everywhere. Barack Obama has expressed support for so-called clean coal. Matt Landon?

MATT LANDON: Well, coal is dirty, dangerous and destructive. And it is dangerous from the cradle to the grave. Not only can you not mine coal safely, but you cannot burn it. Not only — well, this is surface mining. You know, surface mining is very destructive to the environment. And so, you know, you have surface mining as the cradle, and then all the way to the grave, here in Harriman, Tennessee, we’re seeing where this coal fly ash disaster is just showing the end product as being a very destructive thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt Landon, I want to thank you for bringing us up to date on the largest coal ash spill in US history, speaking to us from Tennessee with United Mountain Defense.

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