Community Concerned Over Spill's Long-Term Effect
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Now for an update on that coal ash spill in Tennessee. It happened right around Christmas, when a holding pond burst and flooded 300 acres with sludgy residue from a power plant. Officials in eastern Tennessee say the health risks are minor, but some people near the plant are skeptical. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Kingston, Tennessee.
ADAM HOCHBERG: To appreciate how much anxiety there is here about lingering health effects of the coal spill, consider that the mayor of Kingston felt the need last week to hold a most unusual press conference. With cameras clicking and reporters watching, Mayor Troy Beets did something many of his city's residents won't do. He drank a glass of water.
Mayor TROY BEETS (Kingston, Tennessee): This is a cup of Kingston city water that comes from my house and out of my tap, and I just want to drink it for you right here. And I'm going to be fine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HOCHBERG: Indeed, the mayor didn't keel over after enjoying his beverage. And despite the ash spill that's turned parts of two rivers into stagnant sludge pools, state and federal officials say their tests show the local water is safe to drink. Likewise, they've declared the air safe to breathe and suggested that as long as people don't come in direct contact with the coal ash, there's no danger at all. But those assurances have done little to alleviate people's worries.
Unidentified Man: I'd like to welcome everybody to the town hall meeting in Harriman tonight.
HOCHBERG: Last night, at a pair of public meetings in the neighboring cities of Kingston and Harriman, leaders of TVA and other agencies were confronted by skeptical crowds. Several people alleged the government is downplaying the hazard. Brenda Bailey(ph) said she initially believed there was no danger to staying in her house, about a half mile from the TVA plant.
Ms. BRENDA BAILEY (Resident, Kingston, Tennessee): I trusted you, and I went back home. I got sick, and the doctor told me that I had asthma, which I had never had, due to the dust that was stirred up. But nobody will help me.
HOCHBERG: Other speakers said they feel fine now but worry about the long-term effect of exposure to coal ash, which contains arsenic and other heavy metals. Brian Long(ph) is so worried that he's ready to pack up his family and leave town.
Mr. BRIAN LONG (Resident, Kingston, Tennessee): I'm not willing to see what the effects are going to be 10, 15, 20 years down the road. So my family and I are in contact with real estate companies now about selling our home.
HOCHBERG: People received few assurances last night about the long-term effects. The head of the TVA, Tom Kilgore, talked mainly about more immediate challenges, like keeping the spill contained and figuring out how to clean up the tons of sludge.
Mr. TOM KILGORE (CEO, TVA): Let me say this. I do have children and grandchildren. I'd want them to be safe. I'd want to hear what you're hearing from me, that we will clean it up. This is not something we would want to happen.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
HOCHBERG: Yesterday along the Clinch River, TVA helicopters dropped grass seed and fertilizer on the muck, an effort to control dust and erosion. Nearby property owners, who've seen the once-flowing river degenerate into a gray swamp, watched with only mild interest. Jason Robertson(ph), who's fished these waters for years, predicted it will be decades before he can do it again.
Mr. JASON ROBERTSON (Resident, Kingston, Tennessee): It makes me horrified, really. You could just come out here and it'd be peaceful, calm, be able look out on to the river and everything would be fine. And you can't even do that. I mean, my favorite fishing hole is gone.
HOCHBERG: Robertson's family is among several in this neighborhood who are buying bottled water. And he's even working with a private lab to do his own water tests, an indication of how little confidence some residents have in the public officials who have assured them they're safe. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Kingston, Tennessee.
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