HARRIMAN, TENN. — As Tommy Charles looks out of his dining room window, it's easy to see why he and his wife moved to Lakeshore Drive in Harriman nearly 50 years ago.
The Emory River widens as it passes his house. Great blue herons glide above the placid, gray water. It's an idyllic place to live and raise a family.
Because others saw the same potential, the neighborhood grew to more than 25 homes. No one seemed to mind the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant looming just a short distance away.
That was how things were, at least, before the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 2008. When a dike failed at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash cascaded into the Emory and Clinch rivers and smothered some 300 acres of land.
The breach released a gooey, slow-moving wave of toxic sludge and polluted water into the river. It snapped trees as if they were twigs and knocked homes off their foundations. It destroyed three houses and damaged dozens of others. In the short run, at least, there were no injuries.
Although Charles' home and most of the others on Lakeshore Drive were undamaged, he is the only resident left.
The last holdout.
As it launched a massive cleanup effort, TVA bought out the entire neighborhood — all but Charles' house — and turned the area into a park. His reasons for staying are simple — and yet not so easy to explain.
Bigger than Deepwater Horizon accidentBut now, five years after one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States, the area around his home offers one more reminder of how much has changed — and maybe of how much has not.
More coal ash spilled at Kingston than oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico two years later. Enough muck spewed forth to fill a single football field, including end zones, more than 2,500 feet into the air. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation hit TVA with an $11.5 million fine, the largest ever for state regulators.
To clean up the spill and restore the area, TVA has spent $1 billion. Agency officials say they are on pace to spend nearly $200 million more by the time the project wraps up in 2015.
But the legacy of the Kingston spill goes far beyond the Emory and Clinch rivers. Beyond Lakeshore Drive and Charles' neighborhood. Beyond Harriman and the state of Tennessee.
The spill prompted TVA and other utilities across the nation to re-evaluate how they store coal ash, a byproduct from burning coal to produce electricity. The material contains arsenic, selenium, mercury and other pollutants — all harmful to people and wildlife when found in high concentrations.
Congress held hearings in the aftermath. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules regulating coal ash, including classifying it as a hazardous material.
"Kingston was a dramatic statement of the costs of using coal," said Paul Sloan, who was a deputy commissioner at TDEC at the time of the accident.
But five years on, it's not clear what lessons were learned. Coal ash remains largely unregulated. The EPA and Congress have not yet acted to strengthen oversight of the material. Industry groups and some lawmakers continue to oppose classifying coal ash as hazardous.
"The jury is still out on whether we will get the protections we need to prevent this from happening again," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a longtime TVA watchdog group. "The final chapter hasn't been written."
"I couldn't believe it"Charles, 74, remembers waking up five years ago to a catastrophe.
"A neighbor friend, he heard about it," Charles recalled recently. "As soon as I got out and moved around, I saw that mess. I couldn't believe it."
The coal ash came up both channels of the Emory River around the peninsula where Charles lives. It ripped Charles' small boat from its moorings.
Tom Grizzard, 73, remembers that night, too. He lives just a few miles away and drove down toward the spill that morning. Ash and mud were everywhere. Dead fish in people's yards.
"It was a mess," Grizzard said. "They screwed up."
In the years since the spill, Charles and Grizzard have watched TVA work to clean up the area. They said TVA has done a good job. It just shouldn't have happened in the first place.
"I will say this: They put a lot of people to work," Grizzard said. "But we as people are paying for it."
TVA began dredging in March 2009 and eventually removed 3 million cubic yards of coal ash and other debris. That took more than a year. Train load after train load — 414 in all — hauled the coal ash to a landfill in Alabama over 18 months.
The utility then built a new 240-acre landfill to replace the one that failed. It will store the remaining ash from the spill. The ash was dried first, and the new landfill has liners to prevent leaks. It includes a massive retaining wall 70 feet into the ground.
Work on the new landfill is in its final stages as crews continue to cap it and plant grass on top. The new landfill is designed to prevent a repeat of 2008. Five years ago, the coal ash was too wet, stacked too high and placed upon a poor foundation. All of those were factors in the dike failure. There were two earlier leaks elsewhere on site — clear warning signs.
"In total it will be a six-year job," said Craig Zeller, the EPA's project manager overseeing the recovery work. "As far as superfund responses, it is among the largest we've got, at least in (the Southeast), if not in the country."
Once TVA got organized, Smith said the agency did a "reasonably good" job getting the coal ash out of the river.
"I don't know whether it was perfect. There was almost no way you could get an A because of the complexity of it," he said. "It was enough for us that we did not follow through on our Clean Water Act lawsuit."
Beyond the ash itself, TVA did a $40 million study to determine the residual effects on the environment and wildlife from the spill and what ash remains in the rivers. About 500,000 cubic yards of ash remain. It has mixed with decades-old radioactive pollution from the Department of Energy's nearby nuclear reservation in Oak Ridge, making it too risky, difficult and expensive to remove.
The study found no major risks from the remaining ash, but TVA is required to monitor wildlife for the next 30 years.
TVA also has pledged $43 million in support to Roane County, $32 million of which has been invested at nine area schools. The agency also has built a park and walking trails where the Lakeshore Drive neighborhood once stood and will provide land to the county for ball fields and recreational facilities.
Harriman Mayor Chris Mason said two stories emerged from the Kingston spill. After seeing images from the spill, many across the country might think the area would no longer be a place where people would want to live, he said.
"Please don't misunderstand me and think that what happened wasn't bad because it was," he said. "But Roane County was and is still a fantastic place to live. The TVA coupled with the EPA have done and are doing a good job with the cleanup, and I believe that the area, especially the immediate area, will be a very nice place to be."
A disaster that resonatesThe ripple effects from the spill have been felt far from the site, not just for TVA but for state regulators and utilities nationwide. TVA has pledged up to $2 billion to convert from wet coal ash to dry storage, a far safer way to handle the material.
Two utilities in South Carolina are voluntarily removing coal ash from storage sites near waterways. North Carolina has sued a major power provider over pollutants leaking from coal ash storage ponds.
But some environmental groups say more should be done. There are hundreds of coal ash impoundments around the nation, and the EPA has found dozens that it believes are leaking.
More uniform regulations are needed on how coal ash is stored, said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Municipal landfills often face tougher rules, and regulations on coal ash vary by state.
Holleman said the utilities are using 21st-century technology to remove pollutants from the air to meet new, more stringent emissions standards. But the industry is using 13th-century technology to store coal ash, he said.
"The Romans would have done a better job than we are doing with this stuff," he said.
The EPA also should classify the material based on its danger, he said. The Southern Environmental Law Center supports making coal ash a hazardous substance.
Some utilities have recognized the need to make changes. Others, he said, should do the same before another Kingston takes place.
"I would hate to go to bed each night as a CEO, executive or board member of a company storing millions of tons of coal ash in a wet state… If that breaks, I have huge personal legal liability. Kingston put that on the map."
Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, which supports recycling the material, said the the waste shouldn't be classified as hazardous. It can be recycled and used in road construction products, roofing and more.
Considering it hazardous would halt those recycling efforts, he said. Even the prospect of new EPA rules has already hurt the recycling market.
A powerful group of senators in 2010 — including Tennessee Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — wrote to then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson urging her not to follow through on the proposal.
In a recent meeting with The Tennessean's editorial board, Alexander said the spill was a "supreme embarrassment for TVA."
And although the utility is doing a good job cleaning up, it is costing ratepayers, money he said that could have instead gone toward reducing rates, boosting economic development or buying new pollution-control equipment.
Regulating coal ash as a hazardous material isn't the right approach, Alexander said.
"You can turn coal ash into products that can be sold commercially," he said.
He said states are capable of regulating the material and making polluters clean up after accidents.
Although the coal ash association does not support EPA's proposal to classify coal ash as a hazardous material, better regulation is needed, Adams said. The association supports legislation sponsored by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.
The bill, passed by the House this year, would establish minimum requirements for the management and disposal of coal ash, including the structural integrity of coal ash landfills and groundwater monitoring. "It provides real protections and provides it in a reasonable manner," Adams said.
The proposal, though, would strip the EPA of its authority to regulate coal ash as a hazardous material, and environmental groups oppose it.
The EPA said Thursday that it will finalize the rule after completing a full evaluation of all of the 450,000 comments and other data it has received. A recent federal court decision requires the EPA to submit a schedule for final action by Saturday.
A quieter placeBack near the Kingston power plant, the landscape has changed. Trucks continue to roll down the road. Bulldozers rumble across the landscape.
But in many ways, the area is quieter than five years ago.
TVA bought 180 properties and 960 acres from private landowners in the wake of the spill. Agency officials said the utility bought the land because of ash in the water and the nuisance from what will be six years of recovery work. TVA also bought the land to expand the power plant site.
All the offers, TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said, were voluntary and made based on assessments of damage and impacts from the recovery work. The prospect of lawsuits loomed.
Charles and his wife, Carolyn, the lone holdouts on Lakeshore Drive, received a settlement from TVA and agreed not to sue, but they declined to disclose the amount.
Money was never the issue, Charles insists. The house was paid for. Charles and his wife could have sold out and moved.
Inside the ranch home, Charles shows a faded picture of the house when he first bought it in the spring of 1964. He takes a step down into the master bedroom, once the garage, and explains how he built the bedroom suite himself. He pulls out a drawer, revealing his signature on the back.
When TVA officials approached him about the sale, Charles declined.
"Listen, I said, 'You could offer $1 million and I said it is still not for sale.'"
Charles admits he can get worked up when talking about TVA. Still, he said, he doesn't begrudge those who took the buyouts.
It just wasn't right for him. None of them had been here as long.
"They wouldn't have 30, 40 years of love in the house," he said.
The more he and his wife thought about it, the harder it seemed to sell and move on. The question that loomed largest in their minds: Where else would they go?
Standing in his driveway, struggling to explain, tears fill his eyes. He turns away. All he can muster are two simple words.
"It's home," he whispered. "It's home."
Contact Duane Gang at 615-726-5982 or firstname.lastname@example.org.