TVA says ash spill cleanup could take 3 years

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A massive coal ash spill in Tennessee could take three years to clean up, followed by potentially years of environmental monitoring, the Tennessee Valley Authority says.

The nation’s largest public utility is pushing to get some 3 million cubic yards of ash cleared from the Emory River by spring 2010 — about 18 months after the Dec. 22 disaster at the Kingston Fossil Plant.

“We feel that although that is an aggressive schedule, we can meet that,” TVA chief environmental executive Anda Ray told agency directors on Thursday.

A recent study from Duke University researchers suggested exposure to dust and river sediment containing toxic metals and radioactivity from the Kingston ash could pose health risks to local communities and wildlife.

Ray acknowledged that it was “time critical” to get the ash out of the water by spring “to prevent further migration of the ash downstream as the spring rains come” and to reduce chances of flooding in diked areas.

The removal of another 2.4 million cubic yards of ash remaining in the failed retention pond and piled up in a cove behind a temporary dike is considered less critical and could another year or two, Ray said.

According to TVA’s timetable, the agency could still be dealing with environmental restoration and long-term monitoring for potential effects at least four years after the disaster or longer.

Duke researcher Avner Vengosh, who has been studying the spill and has taken samples that have found radium, arsenic and mercury in the ash, said TVA has done a good job so far of keeping the ash wet and under control.

But in an Aug. 15 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Vengosh notes a “high probability that as the ash dries, fine particles enriched with these elements will be re-suspended in the air as dust and could have a severe health impact on local residents or workers who inhale them.”

Ray said there have been more than 93,000 air samples, 2,300 water samples and 140 ash and soil samples tested by the state of Tennessee, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and TVA since the spill.

The results continue to show the air is safe to breathe and that well water and municipal water are safe to drink, she said.

TVA has spent $168 million so far on the cleanup and plans to spend another $300 million in fiscal 2010. The agency estimates the final tab, excluding litigation costs, could reach $1.2 billion.

Ray said the arrival of two large dredges has accelerated the river cleanup. “We are removing ash from the river faster than we can transport it off site,” she said.

Some 500,000 cubic yards have been dredged and 300,000 cubic yards have been shipped by covered railcars to a landfill in Alabama. The facility has contracted for all 3 million cubic yards from the river, and Ray said it may be open to taking more.

TVA officials will decide in coming months, with public input, where and how to dispose of the remaining 2.4 million cubic yards, she said. At this point, TVA is planning to send it all offsite.

Meantime, TVA intends to convert all of its wet-ash operations like Kingston to dry-ash to prevent a repeat of the spill. Each of TVA’s 11 coal-fired power plants in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky has at least one wet-ash facility. Kingston will be converted by 2011. TVA has budgeted $625 million for this work through fiscal 2012 and anticipates spending as much as $2 billion in total on the conversions over eight to 10 years.

“Our goal is to modernize the fleet, to install state-of-the art equipment to insure safety and regulatory compliance, and to position TVA as an industry leader for coal combustion product operations and energy,” said Bob Deacy, who heads a newly created TVA coal byproducts unit.

TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore was asked Thursday about whether any “heads have rolled” as a result of the spill, as he told a U.S. House committee last month that they might.

“I have found nobody so far … that was culpable enough to say one person … should have done something that could have caused this not to happen. So far I have not found anybody I would fire,” Kilgore said. “I am not saying we won’t.”

Duncan Mansfiedl/The Associated Press