It’s been five years since an epic industrial disaster at a coal plant in East Tennessee.
Millions of tons of leftover ash were piled up wet inside a huge earthen wall, and on December 22, 2008, that wall broke. The massive sludge spill at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant blanketed the surrounding countryside and two nearby rivers, and cost a billion dollars to clean up.
The flood of gray muck flowed over acres of land, knocking one house off its foundation and ruining others. Hundreds of property claims are in mediation, and TVA will spend the next decade and hundreds of millions more to change how it stores ash left over from burning coal for energy.
TVA bought up 180 properties after the spill, from riverfront lots to houses knee-deep in sludge. Many others still say the power provider should’ve covered them, and didn’t. Steve Scarborough says it’s like TVA drew a line on a map to decide who to pay: “If you weren’t inside that group, then, you know, tough luck, sue me.”
In 2008, Scarborough was trying to sell some nearby riverfront property to put his boys through college. He says the force of the spill pushed ash to his property miles upstream, and ever since he’s been looking at pennies on the dollar. Just last year a federal judge ruled TVA can be held liable for damages, but Scarborough says that won’t get him back the last five years.
“If TVA could figure out some way for us to get our reputation back, we could take it from here, but so far, they haven’t.”
Scarborough does give TVA some credit. At the actual spill site, he says the cleanup has made things prettier than before.
TVA did still have to leave tons of ash in the riverbed. They said trying to dredge it all up would stir up toxic pollutants left there decades ago – the legacy of a nuclear research facility upstream.
A TVA contractor on the site also faces a lawsuit from dozens of cleanup workers, who say they got sick after they weren’t allowed to wear masks or respirators.
TVA has already converted the Kingston plant where the disaster happened from what it calls “wet” to “dry” storage. Spokesman Scott Brooks says that makes it more like a landfill than a lake, meaning it can be “capped.”
“Capping means putting a liner so no moisture can get in, then adding topsoil and grass, so it’s just like a municipal landfill – all you see is grass on top,” Brooks says.
A second plant is now making the switch, which costs $50 million at the low end. TVA’s Gallatin plant near Nashville is also on the list. Exactly how many sites will be converted isn’t clear, since TVA is in the process of deciding which coal plants to shutter altogether over the next few years.