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US: Plant That Spilled Coal Ash Had Earlier Leak Problems

by John M. BroderNew York Times
January 8th, 2009

The chief executive of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the coal-burning power plant responsible for an enormous flood of coal ash in East Tennessee late last month, acknowledged Thursday that the plant’s containment ponds had leaked two other times in the last five years but had not been adequately repaired.

The official, Tom Kilgore, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the authority had found that dikes holding millions of cubic yards of toxic coal ash mixed with water at the authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee had allowed noticeable “seepage” in 2003 and 2005.

The authority chose inexpensive patches rather than a more extensive repair of the holding ponds, possibly contributing to the catastrophic failure on Dec. 22, Mr. Kilgore said.

He said the December breach appeared to have occurred at a different site from the one where the earlier leaks happened, so it was not clear whether more extensive repairs could have prevented the disaster. Nonetheless, he said, “the most expensive solution wasn’t chosen,” adding, “Obviously, that doesn’t look good for us.”

“We thought this was a viable containment,” Mr. Kilgore said a few minutes later. “We had no reason to believe it wouldn’t hold this.”

He said heavy rains and freezing temperatures had probably contributed to the breach.

The toxic flood destroyed three homes and damaged several dozen properties. There were no immediate injuries or deaths.

The committee chairwoman, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, said the spill dramatized the need for strict regulation of fly ash and other waste from coal-fired power plants and for closer oversight of the T.V.A. Ms. Boxer was strongly critical of the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to declare coal ash a hazardous waste and for refusing to set national standards for its storage and disposal.

Ms. Boxer, who passed around the committee table a large Mason jar of sludge from the spill, also accepted a share of the blame for the Tennessee mess. She said she had been chairwoman of the environment panel since 2007 but had paid no attention to the T.V.A., one of the nation’s largest producers of electricity, and its hazardous byproducts.

“We didn’t really do much in the first two years looking at T.V.A.,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

She and several other committee members said they would press for new coal ash regulations, including a requirement that it be stored in lined pits and dried out so that it could not cascade into towns and rivers.

More than 1,300 dumps across the United States contain billions of gallons of fly ash, which contains heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. In sufficient concentrations, these metals have been linked to human cancers, respiratory diseases, nervous system disorders and reproductive problems.

Five residents of Harriman, Tenn., where the spill occurred, attended the hearing, and several said afterward that they were dissatisfied with Mr. Kilgore’s responses.

“I feel like Mr. Kilgore didn’t give us many answers to much of anything,” said Melinda Hillman, who lives on Emory River Road near the Kingston plant. “I want to see data, analysis of what was in that fly ash, a plan of action for immediate cleanup and the long-term cleanup to make sure our environment is restored.”

A neighbor, Teresa Riggs, said she had experienced nosebleeds and burning in her throat since the spill. Ms. Riggs said she was worried about the long-term health effects of the accident and had this warning for others who live near industrial facilities: “Know what’s in your backyard and how they’re taking care of it and what they’re containing there, so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”



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