(WBIR - Roane County) This weekend marks five years since one of the largest man-made environmental disasters in United States history unfolded right here in East Tennessee.
On December 22, 2008, the wall of a huge storage pond broke at the TVA power plant in Kingston. The collapse of the earthen dike unleashed a tidal wave of more than one billion gallons of wet ash and sludge in Roane County, much of it falling directly into the Emory River and Clinch River.
Five years later, TVA has already spent more than $1 billion on the clean-up and recovery. It estimates the total costs to reach $1.2 billion when the project is complete in another year.
10News toured the site of the ash spill this week. The well-organized cleanup effort plowed ahead under relatively warm and sunny skies. The setting stood in stark contrast to the scene five years ago in the freezing dark of night. At approximately 1:00 a.m. on December 22, 2008, the neighborhood surrounding Swan Pond Road awoke to chaos and confusion on a night when temperatures dipped to 12 degrees.
Messy First Day
The first emergency scanner traffic relayed messages of a mudslide that had hit several homes. The road to the neighborhood was completely blocked with debris and power had been shut off with many downed power lines.
10News arrived at the scene and also sent a reporter to the hospital in Harriman in case there were injuries. It was there that we first met the family of James Schean while he received treatment for low body temperatures after he crawled through a surprise swamp of wet ash in frigid conditions.
Schean was sitting inside his home when an avalanche of ash ripped the house off its foundation, shoved it through his yard into the street, and the structure began caving in.
"At first I thought a tree fell on the house. When the house stopped, all the doors were jammed and the ceiling was caving in. I kicked out a window and crawled outside before everything collapsed," said Schean to 10News on the morning of the ash spill. "I was lucky to get out of there alive. Like I I told the nurse, I don't normally go to church every Sunday, but I believe I'll go this Sunday."
The rising sun shed light on the full magnitude of the mess that was unleashed on Roane County. Dozens of homes were suddenly in the midst of a moonscape of mud and coal ash. When the ash broke loose, it hit the river with enough force to create a wave that demolished boat docks upstream. The ash created a sudden change in temperature and clouded the water, resulting in a large fish kill that lined the shores downstream.
The rivers used for recreation and community water supplies were suddenly choked with ash. Residents expressed fears about the safety of drinking water, although monitoring showed no problems at the intake downstream.
TVA's initial comments on the spill included a vast underestimation of the time it would take to clean up the disaster. The agency spoke of the recovery effort in terms of weeks or maybe even months. That is still technically correct, although the current estimated completion date next year would put that somewhere close to 72 months or 312 weeks.
Litigation and Bargaining Begins
As residents worried about the toxicity of airborne ash that was drying out and stirring in large piles after previously being held in wet storage, TVA began to attempt dust suppression by dropping grass seed from helicopters in January 2009.
A litany of litigators also began descending on Roane County, including some with star-power. Erin Brockovich addressed a packed school gymnasium in Roane County as the paid spokesperson for a law firm in search of plaintiffs.
"I am here first and foremost for you, and my choice of who I thought would be the best legal team to help you," said Brockovich to the crowd on January 4, 2009.
TVA began the process of avoiding lawsuits by purchasing property impacted by the spill. TVA appraised property and then offered owners an amount sometimes double that amount as compensation for pain and suffering. Those who sold to TVA also signed a release that prevented them from suing the agency in the future.
"Now reality is setting in that we're going to leave there and it was a wonderful place to live," said Angie Spurgeon in 2009.
Many homeowners did not agree with TVA's appraisals and faced a "take it or leave it" decision. That is, if they did not take the settlement, they were unable to leave an area where a dirty clean-up process coated yards and the air with potentially toxic fly ash. There were no private buyers willing to purchase homes for previous market value adjacent to an environmental disaster. Some residents who said they could not buy comparable property for the amount offered by TVA chose to tough it out.
"I said, 'No, I'm not losing money because you screwed up the environment.' To me, they basically said you are going to take what we offered you or eat it. We have been eating it for 11 months now," said resident Gary Topmiller in November 2009.
Within a few years, almost all residents near the ash spill (including Topmiller) sold their property to TVA. A total of 180 properties covering around 960 acres was purchased by TVA during the last five years.
EPA Picks Up Pace
The first few months after the ash spill were dominated by analysis of the disaster. Substantial clean-up began in March 2009 with TVA beginning to dredge more than 600 million gallons of ash out of the Emory River. The ash was removed from the river, dried in stacks, and hauled away via train to a landfill in Alabama. However, progress was very slow. That slow pace was truly revealed after the EPA took charge supervising the clean-up in May 2009.
10News toured the ash spill with then newly-appointed supervisor Leo Francendese with the EPA. Francendese arrived knowing he would be the first in a relay of coordinators to oversee the ash spill. His job was to get the ash out of the main channel.
"When I arrived, they were only removing 1,000 cubic yards of ash per day. We increased that immediately to 7,000 cubic yards a day and it'll be up to 15,000 soon," said Francendese in May 2009. "I sincerely believe spring of 2010 is doable [to finish dredging the main channel]."
In fact, dredging was completed in June 2010 with the last shipment of recovered ash being sent to Alabama in December 2010. The river reopened to recreation and the focus of ash recovery shifted to back-channels and the material that never made it into the water.
Francendese departed after a year and Craig Zeller arrived as the new EPA supervisor of the ash spill clean-up. Zeller's role has focused on the next phases of constructing a permanent containment cell for the ash.
Rebuilding Land and Relationships
After much debate, the decision was made to store much of the remaining ash permanently at the site of the Kingston Fossil Plant where the previous storage cell failed. In June 2011, crews began building an earthquake-proof wall around the 240 acre ash cell that went 70 feet below the surface. Excavation of material finished in the summer of 2013 and crews began covering the cell with a cap that will eventually be covered under a couple of feet of topsoil.
The homes TVA purchased on Lakeshore Drive have been razed and the area was converted into public park land with fishing piers, walking trails, and picnic areas.
Zeller predicts the entire clean-up should now be complete in another year.
"When you look out there and see brown dirt, that's a good thing. That means we've got all that grey ash out of there," said Zeller during a 10News tour of the site on Wednesday. "I think this is a testament that if you sit down, roll up your sleeves, and start digging every day, all day, week after week, month after month, year after year, what looks daunting at first after you do that for five years you really see a lot of results."
This week, 10News spoke to several former residents of the neighborhood devastated by the ash spill. Most said they have done their best to move on, try not to think about painful memories related to the spill, and believe TVA has done its best to make the best of the situation. However, most also said they still harbor resentment towards TVA because regardless of what has been done to correct the situation, the main point in their minds is that the disaster never should have happened. In 2012 a federal judge ruled TVA was liable for the ash spill due to the agency's "negligent nondiscretionary conduct."
Kathryn Nash, TVA's general manager of the Kingston ash recovery effort, acknowledged the resentment some residents still feel five years after the disaster.
"After you have something like this happen, the relationship [between TVA and the community] does take a hit. It is a struggle. But TVA's commitment to clean this up and make it as good as or better than before the spill, we are doing that," said Nash. "You can see that closure is really happening and within a year this project will be wrapped up."
There are currently 63 lawsuits from 880 plaintiffs pending in federal court that claim property damage, according to Duncan Mansfield with TVA media relations. Mansfield said none of the cases have been tried and U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan has ordered pre-trial mediation. "Those discussions have been underway for several months and are continuing," wrote Mansfield.
** Reporter's Note: James Schean, the resident who escaped his home that was demolished by the ash spill, died in August 2012 at the age of 57. His family said he succumbed to liver disease.