Eight years ago, an avalanche of ash collapsed into rivers and neighborhoods in one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. The recovery since then has been slow, but dramatic.
"The rivers are probably cleaner now than they’ve been in decades," said Ron Woody, Roane County Executive. "You know, there will be a perception we have to overcome for a number of years. But if people visit us, they’ll never recognize we had an environmental disaster here."
On December 22, 2008 the wall of a huge storage pond broke at TVA's Kinston Fossil Plant, releasing more than a billion gallons of wet ash and sludge. Around 600 million gallons fell directly into the Emory River and Clinch River.
Many residents had to evacuate their neighborhoods, surrounded by a moonscape of coal fly ash, the byproduct of burning coal to create electricity.
TVA bought around 180 properties affected by the ash spill. Around 160 of those properties were residential homes. The purchase included an agreement that the owners would not sue TVA.
Today around 100 of those homes have been razed. Their waterfront property has been transformed into parks, complete with hiking trails, picnic tables, grills, fishing docks, and boat ramps.
Woody gladly shows off the new grassy fields on Swan Pond Circle Road that were once buried beneath a mountain of ash. The fields are part of a new soccer facility.
"The Swan Pond sports complex, we call it. We’ve got two new soccer fields we started using this summer. We have great recreation assets here," said Woody. "Part of this complex was paid for with money from TVA."
The clean-up cost TVA more than $1.2 billion.
TVA also benefited from guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency, which stepped in and took charge of the clean-up in 2009. At the time, TVA was slowly and delicately trying to remove ash from the rivers. The EPA drastically accelerated the pace, allow almost all of the ash to be dredged from the river by the spring of 2010. Some ash remains at the bottom of the river covered by sediment because removal would cause more disturbance than benefit.
The EPA then oversaw TVA’s construction of an earthquake-proof wall to surround the 240 acres of ash that did not spill into the rivers. The ash was then covered with a protective cap, topsoil, and grass.
The TVA ash spill in Roane County changed how the nation treats the fossil fuel byproduct. Prior to the spill, the EPA did not regulate coal ash. The government now considers ash to be solid waste and requires all ash ponds to be retrofitted with protective liners. Environmental groups wanted ash to be deemed hazardous material, which would have required more stringent standards for its disposal and storage.
In 2015, TVA auctioned around 60 of the homes it bought from victims of the ash spill. Some of the homes were purchased by their original owners. Lakefront property that was vacant for years now has people to call it home.
TVA also changed how it stores the ash in Kingston. The material is no longer stored in wet ponds as a form of ash soup. TVA now uses new technology to steamroll the ash into large fields of dense solid ground.
In the eight years since the ash spill, the road to restoration has been long and remains littered with resentment from residents who believe the disaster never should have happened. But Woody says the destination of the road has clearly been a full recovery.
"TVA made a promise to us they’d make things better than they were before. And we really feel they’ve fulfilled their promise," said Woody.