Tennessee Environmental Disaster Update

From the NYT, a few days ago:

“In a single year, a coal-fired electric plant deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic materials in a holding pond that failed last week, flooding 300 acres in East Tennessee, according to a 2007 inventory filed with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The inventory, disclosed by the Tennessee Valley Authority on Monday at the request of The New York Times, showed that in just one year, the plant’s byproducts included 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, 1.4 million pounds of barium, 91,000 pounds of chromium and 140,000 pounds of manganese. Those metals can cause cancer, liver damage and neurological complications, among other health problems.

And the holding pond, at the Kingston Fossil Plant, a T.V.A. plant 40 miles west of Knoxville, contained many decades’ worth of these deposits.

For days, authority officials have maintained that the sludge released in the spill is not toxic, though coal ash has long been known to contain dangerous concentrations of heavy metals. On Monday, a week after the spill, the authority issued a joint statement with the E.P.A. and other agencies recommending that direct contact with the ash be avoided and that pets and children should be kept away from affected areas.”

I would have thought that when sludge containing these quantities of toxins spills into the water supply, the presumption ought to be that it is toxic. Of course, one ought to test the water supply to see — evidence is better than presumptions. Oddly enough, though, this hasn’t really happened:

“Though the E.P.A., the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the authority have spoken daily about their efforts to monitor air, soil and water quality, complete results have been released for only two samples, both taken from a drinking water intake site that is upstream of the spill. The water there met drinking standards.

A test for heavy metals in water, soil or sediment should take two to eight hours, said Peter Schulert, the chief executive of the Environmental Science Corporation, an environmental laboratory near Nashville. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t have the results within a day,” Mr. Schulert said.

The data on the toxic compounds produced by the plant was filed with the E.P.A. this year, said Barbara Martocci, a spokeswoman for the power authority. It was posted on the authority’s Web site only in a section labeled “air quality.””

I can see using tests of water upstream from the spill as part of a comparison: they would provide a natural baseline against which to measure the effects of the spill on the water supply. But is there any reason at all for releasing them as stand-alone pieces of data that are supposed to be in any way relevant to this catastrophe, let alone as the only tests released?

Luckily, other groups are testing as well:

“High levels of toxic heavy metals are present in samples taken from the Kingston Fossil Plant ash spill in Harriman, TN, independent testing shows.

Preliminary testing was conducted on samples from the Emory River by scientists working in coordination with Appalachian Voices and the Waterkeeper Alliance’s Upper Watauga Riverkeeper Program. (…)

According to the tests, arsenic levels from the Kingston power plant intake canal tested at close to 300 times the allowable amounts in drinking water, while a sample from two miles downstream still revealed arsenic at approximately 30 times the allowed limits. Lead was present at between twice to 21 times the legal drinking water limits, and thallium levels tested at three to four times the allowable amounts.

All water samples were found to contain elevated levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. The samples were taken from the immediate area of the coal waste spill, in front of the Kingston Fossil plant intake canal just downstream from the spill site, and at a power line crossing two miles downstream from the spill.

“I have never seen levels of arsenic, lead and copper this high in natural waters,” said Babyak.”

I hope Tennesseeans have plenty of bottled water, and that someone is trying to make it available to those in the affected area who can’t afford it, and especially to poorer kids. I also hope the maintenance records for the site that spilled are investigated within an inch of their lives.

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