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A Community on Life Support: Living With the Kingston Coal Ash Spill

The ghost subdivision of Emory River Road in Harriman, Tennessee forecasts the effects of technological disasters

“This thing that happened here, you wouldn’t believe how much it’s changed our lives, “ Glenn Daugherty says. “It just took something out of you when this happened.”

We’re on the Emory River with Daugherty, a retired heavy equipment operator. It’s Sunday and his 20-foot Sweetwater pontoon boat gently motors upstream as the buzz-cut 69-year old charts a path of loss for us,cued by our surroundings.

“It’s the best place in the county to live,” Daugherty says. But like those that speak of their recently deceased loved ones in the present tense, he catches himself. “It used to be. Not any more.”

At first glance the scenery is beautiful and still. A gentle breeze striates the water’s surface into alternating bands of dark water and a reflected overcast sky.

At second glance things are askew. Riverside properties appear the very model of middle-class America’s country charm, but draw closer and you see their docks twisted or removed all together. The lawns are carefully mowed but the garden plants are unkept.  

Daugherty is one of a handful of residents that remain in the Emory River Road neighborhood of Harriman, Tennessee. That’s because the bulk of their neighbors sold their houses to the TVA in settlement agreements after the Kingston coal ash spill sent a tsunami of coal ash slurry down the river. Who wouldn’t hightail it from living next door to America’s largest industrial spill.

The spill happened nearly two years ago but visiting with the remaining residents of Emory River Road is a painful study of the longer-term effects that a disaster like this reaps. In this instance the community emptied out, its streets and riverbanks are ghostly shells of the community they used to link together.  Today, that neighborhood is on life support. TVA police patrol the streets to deter robbers, while TVA workers mow all those lawns. The community has been dismantled but a cloud still hangs over the few remaining residents. 

As far as the clean up effort goes, the TVA has dredged 3.5 million tons of coal ash from the river and the Kingston plant is switching from handling wet coal ash to dry coal ash next year.

But what concerns Daugherty is whether he can water his vegetable garden with the river water (“They said, we don’t know, we’ll have to get back to you. No word. That was a year and a half ago”) or that he can move to an equal property (“I said all I want is my house somewhere else, that’s all I want from you people and they wouldn’t do that”).

“I put my life savings in this place here. We worked as hard as we could to get this place,” he says. “The reason I wouldn’t sell they wouldn’t give me enough money to replace my house here somewhere else.” Daugherty and his wife are suing the TVA for the cost of rebuilding their house on a similar lot.

“That’s what I bought this place for, to retire and love life,” he says. “They said: oh we’ll make it right but they haven’t made it right here.”

* * *

On December 23rd, 2008 a dike at the TVA Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee broke, emptying over one billion gallons of coal ash slurry down the Emory River.

Lucky for everyone the tsunami of coal ash struck late at night and in the dead of winter, at a time when no one was on the river. Nonetheless three properties were wrecked right off the bat and countless others damaged. Those that saw the immediate aftermath of the spill are still shaken by the experience: big piles of ash that rose eight feet out of the water in clumps, grey sludge everywhere, dead fish floating in a sheen of coal ash.

Coal ash is the byproduct of “clean coal” combustion and it contains concentrated levels of trace elements. “It’s like a periodic chart of toxins - everything is there,” says Shea Tuberty, an ecotoxicologist and associate professor of biology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

The exact make-up of coal ash varies with the trace elements present in the coal but includes selenium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, thalium and boron. “We know that several of these trace elements at high concentrations can be toxic to humans. They can be toxic to fish, wildlife, basically living organisms,” says Bill Hopkins, Director of the Wildlife Ecotoxicology and Physiological Ecology Program at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

So over one billion gallons of this stuff was dumped into the Emory River and surrounding areas. But then what happened? Many of the residents of the neighboring Swan Pond and Emory River Road sold their properties to the TVA and moved house. As of this summer the TVA had purchased 165 properties near the spill site.

Those that stayed put have witnessed their community dismantled and their own sense of agency broken in an echo of the aftermath of technological disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill or what the BP Deepwater Horizon is headed for.

It turns out that when technological disasters happen, the costs to the community are stereotyped and dear. In some respects they seem downright predictable, so why do we let these people hang?

The first thing to start off what University of Southern Alabama sociologist Steve Picou calls the “corrosive social cycle” is when people lose trust in the party responsible for the disaster.

“Usually the principle responsible party acts on its own agenda,” says Picou. “They think about litigation. They’re worrying about covering themselves so to speak and when this happens people lost trust in the principle responsible party.”

“This loss of trust, it cascades down into the local community, it gets down into the social fabric,” he says. Next thing you know, people in the communities lose their social capital and their sense of agency. Further down the line depression, constant high levels of anger, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder often appear on the horizon

* * *

A community health survey in the weeks following the spill found that 52% of the people within a 1.5 mile radius of the spill had experienced stress and anxiety. Four out of ten respondents reported a change in health since the spill, with upper respiratory symptoms like coughs, wheezing and shortness of breath topping the list.  Because the survey was never repeated its findings were limited to the short period immediately after the spill.

“We need to recognize that in the wake of any disaster such as this there is a lot of scientific uncertainty that is difficult to sort out and know about in the short term,” says Gregory Button, an assistant professor of anthropology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

“Because of that long-term uncertainty, every time they get a cold they worry. They can live out the remainder of their life with that ongoing anxiety.”

“It sort of took two years of our life away. We don’t live like we used to,” says Gary Topmiller, who lives in the Emory River Road neighborhood with his wife Pam. The Topmillers live across the river from ground zero of the fly ash spill. Today every facet of their home life mitigates for arsenic contamination from the spill. They have closed the upstairs altogether and have two HEPA filters on the go constantly. Pam wipes the house down constantly and Gary shaves their two dogs, Lucy and Pandy weekly. Their shorn velveteen coats track less dust inside from the lawn.

“I was healthy as a horse before this happened,” says Topmiller. “We got what we called ‘fly ash flu.’” There were other symptoms that seemed odd. They’d get nose bleeds all the time. Hair and blood tests came back with significantly elevated arsenic and lead levels. Pam Topmiller would wake up to find her eyes glued shut night after night.

The Tennessee Department of Health’s September 2010 Public Health Assessment however concluded that screening people’s blood or urine for metals “would not be helpful.” The basis for that decision is that “the Tennessee Department of Health does not expect harm to health from touching, eating, drinking, or breathing the metals in coal fly ash.” Still, the first peer-reviewed study published after the Kingston spill expressed concerns about the health effects of air-borne fly ash particles as those smaller than ten microns are respirable and may affect the lung and bronchus. 

* * *

“We are intimately linked to the ecology with a host of symbolic relationships. There are aesthetic relationships, commercial relationships, spiritual relationships and there are subsistence relationships,” says University of Southern Alabama’s Picou. 

“Once the ecology becomes poisoned it feeds back and poisons our social systems, our communities, our families and even our own sense of self.”

That Sunday on the river with Daugherty we saw one lone fisherman on the water. The old stacks of the Kingston coal plant stood sentinel in the distance while the short squat “clean coal” stack with scrubbers steaming away. The sight stuck out on the quiet river so Daugherty edged us closer. Turned out he recognized the fisherman, Mike McCoy, as one of his son’s highschool buddies who has fished out here since he was a teenager.

The two briefly caught up on life pre and post Kingston spill. Their somber small talk eventually petered out, the two boats drifting on the river in a long pause.

“Hopefully the Earth’ll take care of itself,” McCoy concluded.

“Not in my time,” Daugherty barked back. “That’ll be a long time down the road.”