Coal Ash Cleanup Is 24-7 In Tenn. Neighborhood

In Kingston, Tenn., around-the-clock cleanup operations continue at the site of a major spill of coal ash. The ash sludge broke through an earthen dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal burning power plant last week. Ash now covers some 300 acres, including a river and a small lake.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Kingston, Tennessee, efforts to clean up a giant spill of coal ash are going day and night. The ash broke through an earthen dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-burning power plant last week. It oozed over some 300 acres and into a river and a small lake. NPR's Tamara Keith has this story on the problem with dealing with all that muck.

TAMARA KEITH: Coal ash, or fly, ash is a by-product of coal power production, the stuff that doesn't go out through the smoke stack, and it has to be stored somewhere. Before the spill, the coal ash was piled behind a retaining wall, like a mountain of ash, some 55 feet high with a 40-acre footprint. Ron Hall is the plant manager at TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant.

Mr. RON HALL (Plant Manager, TVA's Fossil Plant, Kingston): Yeah, we've got a lot to deal with here. But it's contained, and, you know, we've got the resources on board working 24/7 to get it addressed.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KEITH: More than 60 pieces of heavy machinery worked over the weekend. TVA officials estimate 5.4 million cubic yards of ash and other materials spilled out. That's one big mess to clean up. Right now, Hall says, there are about 20 dump trucks constantly hauling away soupy ash, sludge and solid waste.

Mr. HALL: Right now, in order to facilitate getting it out of the way, we're actually pushing it back on the original pile, we're leaving a buffer, and we're doing a temporary dock arrangement so it can't get back out.

KEITH: At least temporarily, TVA is essentially rebuilding the mountain of ash. Many in the environmental community have argued this type of coal ash storage shouldn't be allowed because, they say, it's prone to failure.

Activist Dave Cooper drove in from Kentucky to volunteer with a local group called United Mountain Defense. He doesn't think it's a good idea to just return the coal ash to the mound where it came from.

Mr. DAVE COOPER (Volunteer, United Mountain Defense): That's not a solution, that's the problem. That's how we got in this mess in the first place.

KEITH: When asked what should be done with the coal ash, Cooper is stumped.

Mr. COOPER: There's millions and millions and millions of gallons of the stuff. Where are you going to put it? It may be a problem without a solution.

KEITH: Glen Birdwell will be involved in deciding what happens to all the ash. He's deputy director for the division of Solid Waste Management for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. He oversees all of the landfills in the state, including the coal ash pile at the Kingston Power Plant, which is technically a class-2 industrial waste landfill.

Mr. GLENN BIRDWELL (Deputy Director, Division of Solid Waste Management, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation): The facility itself goes way back to the mid-1950. So this generation of ash was in existence long before regulations.

KEITH: Regulation of landfills like this one didn't start in Tennessee until 1993, and the Kingston facility was grandfathered in. But any future ash disposal will be regulated by the state, and Birdwell says that includes the ash that spilled.

Mr. BIRDWELL: What they said and how they said it was going to be constructed is now gone. So it'll have to be a change in engineering drawings on how it's to be permitted and where it's supposed to go.

KEITH: But before any decisions are made, Birdwell says more information is needed. At this point, no one even knows why or how the spill happened, and that could influence how coal ash is stored in the future at the Kingston Power Plant and beyond. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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