TVA is spending more than a billion dollars to clean up the site of the 2008 ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The environmental disaster unleashed an avalanche of more than a billion gallons of sludge in Roane County.
While crews have made considerable progress in removing ash from the Emory River and clearing the ash-filled landscape, an investment from TVA has also provided a considerable upgrade to the county's schools.
TVA agreed to pay Roane County $43 million to repair its local economy and invest in infrastructure improvements. The money is managed by the Roane County Economic Development Foundation, which is comprised of county leaders. Those officials decided to invest $32 million of that money in previously-planned but unfunded improvements to the school system.
"We were not lucky [to have the ash spill]. It's certainly not what we would have wanted to fund the school projects," said Gary Aytes, director of Roane County Schools. "But the fact is it would have taken us many years to complete the projects without the tragedy that happened."
Aytes said the school system has spent more than $30 million of its allocated money.
"As far as building your economy, the best way to do that is through your school system," said Aytes. "We built a state of the art elementary school at Dyllis Springs. We did a new gym and cafeteria at Midway Middle School. We did a new gym, cafeteria, and library at Cherokee Middle School. We did expansions and renovations at Rockwood High School, Rockwood Middle School, and Bowers Elementary [in Harriman]."
Time is technically running out for the school system to spend its remaining $1.7 million. TVA set a deadline of summer 2013 to invest its payment to Roane County. The purpose of that deadline is to ensure the county is actually investing the money to repair the economy rather than merely pocketing the cash in savings.
"We have some other projects we want to get done that will take longer than between now and the summer. We plan to ask for an extension of another year," said Aytes. "We want to redo the gym at Harriman High School so it can be used for vocational education. Our band room at Roane County High School really needs a full makeover. We also have some asbestos at Harriman Middle School that we need to remove."
Kingston mayor Troy Beets serves as chairman of the Roane County Economic Development Foundation. Beets says the positives that have come from the ash spill are the result of hard work rather than dumb luck.
"We made lemonade out of lemons," said Beets. "There was a lot of sweat put into these projects and it came through a lot of pain to the county and its image. But once the spill happened, you have to deal with it the best you can."
Beets said the $43 million from TVA arguably carries more monetary value in terms of the upgrades accomplished by the county.
"You think about what it would have cost us [the county] to do these same projects through loans, and they would have cost a lot more money. We would have to pay back a lot more than $43 million when you factor in interest. This money from TVA has allowed us to get a lot more bang for the same buck because we did not have to borrow it," said Beets.
Beets said the improvements to the school system and other infrastructure is clear to those who lived through the spill, but will hopefully be transparent to visitors.
"You can see here we still have our beautiful waterfront. We've got this beautiful city park here. But if somebody came by here that has never been here before, they would never know we had an ash spill. Hopefully we can get to the point where everyone will forget it happened," said Beets.
The hum of machinery from clean-up crews will continue to serve as a reminder of the environmental disaster. TVA expects the project to be completed by the end of 2015.
Aytes believes the entire area will emerge from the ashes stronger than before.
"I think the community has moved forward and is ready to let Roane County move forward," said Aytes.